BAGHDAD, Iraq – "I don't care who is going to be elected," says Fatima Jaddoo. Then in the next breath she adds: "God willing, Bush will not be the winner."
The judgment of this black-clad vendor at a Baghdad market typifies the muddled emotions of a nation watching the U.S. election from afar. They are very much a part of it, yet feel very much apart from it.
With Saddam Hussein's dictatorship gone, and with it the ban on satellite dishes, Iraqis are well served with election coverage. Al-Jazeera (search) and Al-Arabiya (search), the most widely watched satellite stations, are giving extensive coverage. On Tuesday morning, both stations went live with President Bush casting his vote in Crawford, Texas, with Arabic voiceover.
But judging from random interviews, Iraqis feel that for all the centrality of their country in the 2004 race, it isn't really about them. "The whole world has only this subject to talk about; nobody is worried about what is our destiny," said Ammar Sameer, a 29-year-old businessman.
That destiny looks bleak to a nation hammered by the war and its bloody, protracted aftermath. Bush's promise of democracy and peace rings hollow to people frightened to let their children out of the house lest they be kidnapped or bombed.
Yet John Kerry is an unknown. Iraqi TV viewers are by now familiar with the young, shaggy-haired man who protested against the war in Vietnam. But when it comes to Iraq, some find him not much different from Bush.
"We are completely lost between Bush's lies and Kerry's vague promises," says Adil Abdullah, a 27-year-old chemical engineer whose own hopes for a better future were crushed when his fiancee fled to neighboring Syria to escape the violence.
On the other hand, Ghazi Ibrahim Attiya, a merchant in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold, said he prayed for a Kerry victory. "His strategy indicates he might withdraw forces from Iraq," he said. "Also, he acknowledged the losses of the American army."
"Bush is the worst president," said Attiya, 46. "He unjustifiably killed Iraqis."
Privately, though, plenty of Iraqis admire Bush for having finished off Saddam. They tend to like strong, decisive figures. They are used to that style of leadership from their fathers, tribal chiefs and national leaders.
But they don't speak out publicly for Bush or the Americans for fear of their lives. Instead, even those who are glad to be rid of Saddam and share Bush's goals for Iraq say the Americans have bungled the operation. For many Iraqis, holed up in their homes without adequate electricity and water or personal safety, Bush bears the blame.
Ahmed Kadhem, a 25-year-old student, said Bush "promised to oust the former regime and he did. But what came next was that we reached a level where we are desperate for the old regime. We were oppressed, that's true. But at least we had security."
In the Hamraa Cafe in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, conversation Tuesday elicited three very different views.
"I want Bush to win because he's a decisive leader and he managed to rid us of Saddam Hussein's regime..... This was the best gift from the American people to all the ethnic groups in Iraq," said Rebwar Saeed, 38. He's a Kurd, and Kurds are the most pro-American group in Iraq.
Abbas Sadiq, 53, is a Sunni — the Islamic group that dominated when Saddam was in power. "I'd like Kerry to get elected. Bush's policy in Iraq was a failure," he said. "The American army has spilled a lot of Iraqi blood. Bush supports the Zionists. I don't want him to win."
And Matti Botrous, a Christian, said: "I don't care who wins. The result won't change anything in Iraq. The foreign policy of the Americans won't change."
Back in Baghdad, some think the mere fact of the election should resonate with Iraqis, who have never experienced a real one.
Basil al-Jamili, 65, thinks it should be an example for Iraq's own election, planned for January.
It's "a great example for freedom and democracy," he said, then added: "But it is almost the same for us — Bush and Kerry."