BAQOUBA, Iraq — The trip from Baghdad to Diyala province, a land of mostly farmers and shepherds that connects the mountains of northern Iraq to its agricultural center, crosses a landscape of dust and devastation. Driving into the province's capital city, once synonymous with death and still violent, the first words on a small concrete wall at an Iraqi army checkpoint are, "Patience, my beloved Iraq."
Although the blood is gone and so are the bodies, residents of Baqouba still look away when they pass the square where al Qaida in Iraq killed hundreds of people.
Diyala was once the bloodiest of the 14 provinces where Iraqis will vote Saturday for new provincial councils. Shiite Muslim Arabs, Sunni Muslim Arabs and Kurds rub against each other, and their battles transformed Baqouba from the city of oranges to the city of death. Just last week, a family of nine was slaughtered in their home, and two other people were taken. They're still missing.
The provincial council is largely defunct: Eight of its members were killed, and two were detained. One is accused of connections to Shiite death squads; the other is accused of ties to terrorism. Ration cards didn't make it to homes for months during the worst of the sectarian war; Shiite Arabs cowered from al Qaida in Iraq, and Sunni Arabs evaded Shiite militias. Shiite parties control the security forces, and the governor is a Shiite Arab.
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In the north, Kurdish-Arab tension grows. Kurds pushed into northern Diyala in areas that they think should be part of their semiautonomous northern region of Kurdistan, and Arabs feared the expansion of a Kurdish plan to split the country.
The story in Diyala is taking a new turn, however. Everyone in this majority Sunni Arab province led by mostly Shiite Islamists is awaiting the results of Saturday's elections to decide whether ballots as well as bullets can bring change. President Barack Obama's hopes for a brisk withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq may hinge on the answer.
There's optimism, but there's also concern. Shiite Arabs worry about the renewal of Baathists, the party of the brutal Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and Sunni Arabs worry that if the elections don't change the Shiite Islamist-dominated provincial council, violence will be the only recourse.
"For us, for me, it means the rising of the sun on a new day, on a new era," said Sabah Bashir Hassan, the leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) committees in the province. The group, mostly former Sunni Arab insurgents and tribal men, battled al Qaida in Iraq and was paid by the U.S. military but is now under Iraqi government control.
Hassan's optimism, though, comes from a dark corner. He's a man on the run. Known as Abu Talib, he leads thousands of Sunni Arab men in Diyala. The government has issued four arrest warrants for him and for others in the movement. One of his men, Bashir al Jowrani, was beaten and died in custody, he said.
He hasn't seen his wife and children in weeks but still, he said, he'll vote Saturday.
"We are hounded and we are threatened and we run," he said. "Why, after all that we have done for the province, they say you are terrorists? . . . One way or the other, (the government) will end."
The pink, marble-laced building of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission in Baqouba sits next to a building where the dead are washed according to Muslim tradition. As Amer Latif, the head of the commission office in Diyala, took complaints on his cell phone one recent afternoon, a family next door washed the corpse of a dead relative. Out of fear, they refused to say how he'd died.
The death next door is Diyala's present and its past, but Latif is confident that election fraud will be minimal and violence won't engulf the province again. He does fear, however, that political parties will take advantage of naive rural villagers and suicide bombers might attack voters.
He knows, however, that if the political parties reject a shift in power, the government won't be able to calm the province, and that if the security forces also fail, there's a higher power in this pseudo-sovereign nation.
"There are bigger forces that can enforce law," he said, referring to the U.S. military. "The security has not been handed over here."
It's unclear, however, whether the provincial elections, along with national elections scheduled for the end of this year, can solve Diyala's deep-rooted problems.
Sunni Arabs boycotted the last elections, which they thought were fraudulent and held under foreign occupation, and Shiite Islamists took control of the council. Sunni Arab Islamists, exiled under Saddam, mostly from the Iraqi Islamic Party, took a significant minority of the seats, although most Sunni Arabs consider them largely unrepresentative, and Kurds took the rest.
This time, about 640 candidates are vying for 29 seats. The Iraqi Islamic Party rid itself of old faces, save one, to recast itself as the face of change. The Dawa Party of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki promises to bring law and order.
Last year, Maliki, once perceived as a sectarian leader, evolved into a man of action, attacking Shiite militias in the south. He has an unprecedented number of Sunni Arab supporters for a Shiite leader. Even Hassan, a wanted man, will vote for a candidate from Maliki's list as well as others.
"We are afraid that the province is a place where some Baathists will rise," said Sajaa Qaddouri, a provincial council member and a candidate from Maliki's State of Law Coalition. "We have the largest number of Sahwa in the country, and they are all from one sect — they are not mixed — and that will cause us problems."
Nevertheless, in visits to the Sunni Arab village of Jalowla, mostly Kurdish Khanaqeen and beyond, Qaddouri found support, she said.
"We are expecting to win," she said.
In New Baqouba, a fledgling party claims that it will win a number of seats. It calls itself "The Solution," and its ranks are filled with former members of Saddam's army.
At the party's headquarters, across the street from bullet-scarred buildings, Abdul Rahman Jassem Nasser sat on a high-backed sofa in the meeting room.
"We oppose the occupation. The destruction of this country is because of the occupation," he said.
He's pragmatic, though: He once supported armed resistance against the U.S. occupation, but it's no longer the time for that, he said. Al Qaida in Iraq, which many resistance fighters once deemed an ally in the fight, grew cruel, and many then chose to work with an enemy that was less cruel, the United States.
"Diyala is the key to Iraq," he said. "Anyone that will control Diyala will control Baghdad. I will stay away from sectarianism, but if the other side controls Diyala, the Iranians will enter to Baghdad."
The face of this father of 13 was tired. The battle for survival has been long. He survived a series of assassination attempts when he led the battle against al Qaida in Iraq in southern Baqouba.
The killing isn't over. On Thursday, a party member named Abbas Farhan al Jubouri was kidnapped with his brother and cousin. The three were later found dead in a village east of Baqouba.
"They gave us promises, and they were all lies," Nasser said, referring to the U.S. vows to bring freedom and security. "All the suffering of the people is because of the occupation, and if the country is ruled by honest men, they can leave, but if it is still these men, there will be massacres."
Many in Diyala, however, agree that if the election doesn't alter the balance of power, the result will be another round of violence.
"This is what we hope: that these elections will set us free," Nasser said. "If there is no change, a disaster will fall upon us."
(Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article.)
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