Baghdad 2009 Election: Authorization Letters - My Family Travels

I fear that will be written on my gravestone: She forgot to get a Letter of Authorization.

I’ve been stationed in Baghdad, Iraq for several months, working with an NGO that promotes a free press by assisting journalists in developing countries.  The Iraqi Election was my biggest assignment, and here’s my report.

As more and more journalists started pouring into Baghdad and doing election coverage, they all needed their badges, and the all- important car badges, to permit them to move on election day, when there would be a complete curfew, banning all vehicle traffic.

I had been present at several meetings with the Iraq Security Forces, who were discussing security plans, none of which I could discuss with journalists, for security reasons. The Security Forces understandably wanted to keep their arrangements secret; I on the other hand was getting pressure from journalists who knew there would be some kind of restrictions and were trying to plan. Eventually we were told to provide security with complete lists of cars, license plates, drivers, etc, all of which was done. I had been trying to get the car badges several days in advance, for journalists leaving Baghdad and heading into other provinces. But I was getting nowhere.

Then the gorgeous (former Portuguese beauty queen) young woman who was coordinating all the badges for the international observers managed to get her car badges several days in advance. Well! That didn’t sit well with moi at all. So I pushed into my New-York-aggressive gear, and managed to get myself taken into the security operations center for the Iraq High Electoral Commission, to personally beg with the generals for car badges.

There they sat, a variety of uniformed men, many with luxurious moustaches. The wall was covered in a very large map of Iraq with the requisite multi-colored push pins. On the wall was a TV running…  “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

Not that anyone appeared to be watching them but still…. I blinked in surprise, and then was introduced to a very urbane youngish man, in a suit, who immediately gave me his card. It was a high position in the National Security Council (getting into the protective Iraqi mode here — not revealing name or position).  He spoke excellent English, I made my plea, and all I could get out of him was that instead of picking up the badges Friday, January 30th (day before 31st election day), I was to come in the morning of the 29th.

A small victory, but one which would help journalists trying to get out of town. Iraq Security Forces kept promising that they would get car badges to provincial police HQ for journalists, but none of us were confident that would actually occur.

Pre-Election Security Tightens

Meanwhile I had to move back into the International Zone for the week, as travel in and out was become increasingly difficult for security teams, the roads had been closed down as security ramped up during the week.  We were having press conferences almost daily, or one day a press event showing journalists around the national tallying center, also in the IZ.

We had been querying if there would be any special procedure to get journalists into the national tallying center (which is located next door to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s compound, and therefore VERY high security, for both Iraq High Electoral Commission and PM). No, we were assured that the special election Iraq High Electoral Commission badge should be fine. 

As soon as you enter the tally center, ones sees photographic  portraits lining the walls of the 40 employees who died in the line of duty since the founding of the Iraq High Electoral Commission in 2005. So far this year (in 2008, that is) there have been no Iraq High Electoral Commission fatalities.

Day of tally center press event starts, and there’s hardly any press. I keep getting calls from journalists who are being stopped and told they aren’t on the list. ‘What list’? ask I? ‘No one said anything about a list. There IS NO LIST.’ “But we’re being told there has to be an authorized letter and list.”

I’m starting to fume and lose it. “This is a press event. Do they want the press here or not?”

“There has to be an authorization list.” I scurry off to the Iraq High Electoral Commission media colleagues. ‘What is going on? We need an authorized list.”

“But you had the list of accredited journalists who got badges. What more do you need?” At which point I think I threw up my hands. Some got in, many did not.

On the 28th of January they held the ‘special needs voting’, a bit of a misnomer as it sounded like voting for the disabled. What is actually was meant for was to separate the military and police voting from the general voting. This was both to make them fully available to be on duty during election day, but also to prevent having uniformed people in the polling centers as voters, acting as an intimidating presence. Others voting on the 28th included detainees, and hospital patients. It provided a dry run for everyone: security, election teams and monitors, our press center information hot line (we were getting field reports from the Multi-National Force of Iraq joint operations center, or JOC in mil talk)… and the day went very well.

The next day, however, seven people died in post-election violence, three of them candidates who were assassinated.  That brought the total number of assassinated candidates up to five, which for Iraq was not bad. During the 2005 election period, up to 60 Iraqis were getting killed EVERY DAY, the average for the past month was 10. During the 2005 elections people didn’t campaign openly, which they did now. Things have very definitely made a change for the better. What remains to be seen is what kind of violence erupts once results are being made known.

Letters of Authorization

Morning of 29th, I cheerfully head over to pick up my car badges.  No such luck. My Security Center informs me, via an interpreter over the phone, that I cannot get them until the next day. In the last election some bombers had disguised themselves as media, the security forces were just not taking any chances.

I was extremely annoyed, but clearly I had lost that battle. So it was agreed that my colleague Aziz (who works for Iraq High Electoral Commission media section, and who was getting the badges for local journalists) and I would go over the  morning of 30th. We both show up at the gate, and without understanding  Arabic, I saw what was happening.

Aziz started to crumple, plead, and make a writing gesture with his hands, shake his head in woe, and turned to go. It looked like another letter of authorization moment. I called my driver Raed who was outside, to get him to translate for me.

“You need a letter of authorization.” ‘What letter??”  I shouted at him, poor man.

“They didn’t tell me about any letter!” Raed tried to explain to me while I got increasingly irate on the phone. Aziz then called our man inside, and passed the phone to me. “But this is normal, you must get a letter authorizing you to pick up these badges,” he said  to me.

“But why didn’t you tell me?” ‘No one asked” he replied.

“What does this letter have to say?” “The letter…” and then the phone went dead, not unusual here. It wasn’t my phone so I couldn’t throw it to the ground in fury and frustration, much as I wanted to.

So we scurried off to the Iraq High Electoral Commission building next door, Aziz to get his letter, I to get mine. I found someone from the UN to scribble a letter for me on election team letterhead (what was I to do, authorize myself on my own organization’s letterhead?), got it translated, and scurried back.

Meanwhile journalists were ringing me… where was I, they needed their badges. This time when I arrived at the PMNOC (Prime Minister’s National Operation Center) building, it was all smiles, escorted through the Parliament into his office, pleasantries…and then a whole extra stack of badges. Everyone happy. Huge crowd of journalists pounced on me to get their badges… and off they went.

Finally, election day came around. Sadly, I couldn’t go out and about, as I had to run our press center. We were getting news flash reports from the communications center of Multi-National Force of Iraq, as well as UN and other agencies, which we then translated and posted in the press center.  As it turned out,  the VIP voting was at the same hotel as our press center, and I happened to walk in just as Prime Minister Maliki was leaving after casting his vote.

Press Conferences, No Flying Shoes

We had two press conferences that day, one midday and one scheduled for 7P, two hours after the polls closed during the day. There had been a total curfew in effect from 10P the previous evening, airport and borders closed, no vehicles except of course those with the special badges. 

In the middle of the day, amidst reports that people were having trouble getting to the polling sites without vehicles, the curfew was lifted and voting hours extended for one hour. So our press conference was changed to 8P.

At 6P we were told that there would be TWO press conferences, one at 7 for the security forces, and one at 8 with the Iraq High Electoral Commission and SRSG (Special Rep of UN). And that both would be going out as live broadcasts. Our press conference was upstairs, none of the TV networks had enough cable to run up to our center. So we had to re-locate ourselves downstairs.

The PR/advance guy for the SRSG arrived to assist. He took one look at the lobby where the cameras were set up for live transmission. “But this won’t do,” said he, hand on forehead. “There must be a table, microphones, it must be properly set up. The SRSG will not be happy.” 

“Why not have them stand up where the generals will be?” I asked, pointing to a very large and florid wall sculpture. PR gave me a look of horror and disgust, shuddering, “I can’t stand it, it’s awful, no this won’t do.” 

“How about using these tables?’ I asked, pointing to some curved tables in the lobby, covered with white tablecloths. “With that table cloth?” he hissed. At which point I felt like I was in an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy comes to Baghdad. 

Then they wanted to move the sound system downstairs: a Soviet-era mixing board, speaker, mics, transmitters, the lot. I mentioned that the technician had long gone home, I didn’t know how to set it up. PR was very insistent, the aging equipment was schlepped downstairs.

Then came the chair drama. Four chairs… the speakers and their interpreters. Then we heard the whole board of Iraq High Electoral Commission were coming (nine). All the chairs lined up at the table? Yes. No… put the chairs to the side. Move them over. Yes, lined up. Move them back. No to the side. YES LINED UP.

The press conference was fine. The sound system survived to the next day.  PR was right: it looked good and professional; the hissy fits got us where we needed to be. His drama also kept the hulking security teams highly amused.

Election Post Mortem

We had a huge crowd to come hear the announcement about voter turnout… which turned out to be 51%, lower than the 57% for the 2005 elections. Perhaps security had been too tight, perhaps many couldn’t find their names on the list, perhaps provincial elections don’t have the draw of national elections.

But in fact, when one looked closely at the numbers, less provinces had voted this time than last time (there were no provincial elections held up in Kurdistan). If one compared the turnout in the same 14 provinces in 2005 to now, there turnout INCREASED from 49% to 51%. But journalists focused on the overall figure of 57% from 2005.

All that being said, it was perceived by all to be a hugely successful election: hardly any violence, and very few official complaints, they were expecting thousands, and they had a few hundred. The post-election group meeting at the US Embassy was practically a group hug, people were so delighted.

After election day, attention was focused on the national tally center, in the Iraq High Electoral Commission building. Given what happened during the press event at the tally center, my UN colleagues had worked out an elaborate entry procedure with, yes, a general letter of authorization from the head of Iraq High Electoral Commission security. But February 1st, as we’re finishing the big press conference, I learn that journalists weren’t getting into the tally center. The Prime Minister’s Council that morning had insisted on, you guessed it, a letter of authorization from THEM. I saw Aziz crumple once again as he received that information on the phone.

The ballots are counted by hand, entered by hand into computers at the national tally center. I was there as the first boxes of ballot tallies arrived…. Ululating broke out, smiles and clapping, as the boxes were x-rayed, seals examined and broken, and brought into the center for processing. And not one journalist on hand for that moment, which broke my heart. They have subsequently worked it out, journalists can now get in…but no cameras. Someone told me they took away her pad and pen… sigh. It can get ridiculous.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finished first in the provincial elections, strengthening the central government and weakening the religious parties that dominated after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But Iraqis still voted along sectarian or ethnic lines with Mr Maliki’s successes all coming in Shia-dominated provinces. My staff were extremely happy; they are very secular. My Deputy announced that all of Iraq was very happy.

What’s Next for Me

There has been a spate of post-election violence, a bad suicide bomb attack in a restaurant up north, killing 15, wounding over 12. There have been more reported incidents of bombings and mortar attacks than have been seen in a while.

The Islamist parties did not do well, and people expect them to resort to more violence. But overall the violence is still way down from before. While people are generally happy about the results, there is also some concern that Maliki is moving in the ‘strong man’ direction. People in the Iraqi media particularly are worried that he is re-instating some repressive measures vis a vis freedom of information and expression.

The election working group I’ve been working with were clearly thrilled, there was practically a group hug at the post-election meeting between the State Dept and military.

Our biggest press conference was the day they announced the preliminary results, journalists started camping out in the press center for hours to get positioned (and also since the Iraq High Electoral Commission didn’t announce the time of the press conference until two hours before, making me and the other journalists crazy). The room was extremely packed, and I spent most of the conference crouched on the floor next to PR, who was fanning himself (the room was very hot from lights and too many people) while operating the power point (which was in Arabic and we had to get prompting from a member of the audience when to turn to the next slide) holding a recalcitrant plug into a socket so the computer power point would continue to work.

And now I can return to my regular programs. The next big election is May 19 in Kurdistan. It was a lot of fun being in the eye of the storm…

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