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In Iraq, campaign posters cover the blast walls in Baghdad. Wednesday's national elections will be the first since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011. Change is a major campaign theme, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants one thing to stay the same - him. He's running for a third term. Critics worry his strong-arm tactics resemble those used by Saddam Hussein. NPR's Alice Fordham was recently in Iraq and filed this report.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Here's the kind of incident that inflames this divided country. At a Baghdad checkpoint, an Iraqi Arab is shot to death by an ethnic Kurdish soldier. And seizing the moment, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shows up in person along with two dozen vehicles of his security forces. Maliki demands that the Kurdish leaders hand over the soldier and sweeps off. But his forces stay behind and things get nasty. So, a crowd of people have gathered around this Baghdad operations vehicle. They've arrested a journalist, the people are saying, because he was filming them. The people have got very angry. They're trying to stop the car, and the soldiers are raising their guns above it.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
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FORDHAM: The soldiers fire over the heads of the crowd, which scatters, terrified. The incident highlights one of the big problems Iraqis have with their prime minister. They say he treats the security forces like his personal troops. And the main target is the Sunni Muslim minority. Maliki's a Shiite, the sect long oppressed by Saddam Hussein. To Sunnis, Maliki seems out for revenge.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through translator) Any Iraqi person who is innocent and gets arrested without any charges, or on the basis of concocted charges, then I consider that person like a brother. I swear they haven't done a thing.
FORDHAM: That's a Sunni man, watching the sunset by the river Tigris with his wife and daughter. He was afraid to give his name. He says all those arrested without charge are Sunni.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through translator) For me, the prime minister is a sectarian person.
FORDHAM: And with the parliamentary election this week, some also say that the prime minister and his supporters are trying to subvert the democratic process.
MITHAL ALOUSI: They don't understand what that means, democratic process, democratic values.
FORDHAM: That's Mithal Alousi, one of hundreds of people disqualified from standing in these elections. Alousi was disqualified on grounds of bad character. The legal papers he was served with cite a TV interview that he gave, criticizing the prime minister.
ALOUSI: Look, they charge me like a terrorist. So if you make a critic against Mr. Maliki you are like a terrorist. What is the difference now between Mr. Maliki and Saddam Hussein?
FORDHAM: American officials knew Maliki wasn't the ideal democratic leader when they withdrew troops from Iraq but they hoped he would at least hold the country together with his tough tactics. And those tactics win him votes from many Iraqis. But Mouaffak al Rubaie, who used to be Maliki's national security advisor, says his control over the security forces is a huge problem.
MOUAFFAK AL RUBAIE: No, it's not a sustainable situation for a country to move forward and it should not continue. But it has happened as a de facto. We're obliged to accept it for the last four years.
FORDHAM: In a corner of his office, Rubaie keeps the head of a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. Around its neck is the actual noose they hanged him with.
RUBAIE: I want to tell people - number one, tell myself - that any ruler, future ruler, his fate will be the same of Saddam Hussein, if he follows the footsteps of Saddam Hussein if he exercise dictatorship.
FORDHAM: Iraqis are set to vote Wednesday. The campaign season is in full swing with rallies in the streets and ads on TV. It certainly looks like a democracy. But to many people, it doesn't quite feel like one. Alice Fordham, NPR News.
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