- Title: IRAQ: Following Obama, African Iraqis run for office
- Date: 11th December 2008
- Summary: BASRA, IRAQ (RECENT) (REUTERS) AFRICAN NEIGHBOURHOOD OF ZUBAYR TOWN IN BASRA CITY OLD BUILDING, CONSTRUCTION SITE STREET SCENES
- Embargoed: 26th December 2008 12:00
- Location: Iraq
- Country: Iraq
- Topics: Domestic Politics,Light / Amusing / Unusual / Quirky
- Reuters ID: LVA3M3XLPAL27LD7MH24LC4813O6
- Story Text: Inspired by the victory of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, African Iraqis in the southern city of Basra plan to take part in a ballot to end what they say is centuries-long discrimination because of their slave ancestry.
Barack Obama's election in the United States has already had an impact in Iraq, inspiring some Iraqis of African origin to run in a forthcoming election in the hope of ending what they call centuries of discrimination.
"Obama's win is a major turning point in political history, a major turning point and a victory for every black man in the world," said Jalal Chijeel, secretary of the Free Iraqi Movement.
He said the group would be the first to field black candidates in an Iraqi poll when it joins provincial elections scheduled for January 31.
President-elect Obama's ascendancy in the United States has coincided with increased public support for their cause.
"It shows the world that a black man has the ability to communicate, to find his way, and to lead the greatest country in the world.
So it is a victory for all the black people of the world. We call on Obama to pay more attention to black issues because it is an emotional and humanitarian issue," Chijeel told Reuters.
He argues Iraqis of African origin are not represented in top office, suffer disproportionately from poverty and illiteracy and are commonly referred to in derisive terms.
But others see no discrimination against Iraqis of African-origin, whose number is unclear given a lack of statistics.
African Iraqi shop worker Mohammed Nezal said all Iraqis received the same treatment.
"I don't see a difference between a black and white person. The same treatment, the same treatment and working as one hand. We are all Iraqis," Nezal said.
Chijeel said there were some 300,000 black Iraqis in the southern city of Basra alone.
This January's provincial election will be the first to be organised by Iraq and held under Iraqi laws since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein, and will be followed by national elections later in 2009.
As such it could be a crucial step to reconciling the country's sectarian and ethnic groups after years of bloodshed.
Black people in Iraq suffer discrimination partly because of their colour, and also partly because they do not belong to a tribe, Chijeel said.
Tribal family networks and ancestry are important in Iraq and much of the Middle East.
The movement's eight candidates could suffer a backlash from their lighter-skinned countrymen, who respond with indignation to charges of racism and say blacks are treated with respect. They argue electioneering based on race is divisive.
"It seems that they are over-sensitive and feel discriminated against. On the contrary, there is no difference in treatment, they are like us, but they started to isolate themselves and they started to seek posts.
Really, I do not encourage such a thing because it will create discrimination," said Nour Riyadh, a college student.
Chijeel argues that blacks in Iraq are subordinated, partly by a history of slavery.
"To this day, blacks are not given their rights," he said.
"We don't see blacks in local councils, in parliament or cabinet or as ambassadors."
During a five-day visit to Basra, Reuters mostly saw black people working as domestic help and car cleaners.
The Free Iraqi Movement's electoral candidates are teachers, engineers and office workers. They insist they are not a special interest group and want to tackle problems faced by all, such as unemployment.
For a brief period, long ago, blacks once controlled Iraq's south.
There was a revolt in 869 AD by East Africans brought by landowners in Basra to work as slaves, draining marshes in the hot and humid south.
The rebels eventually took Basra and even parts of Iran. But by 883 AD the uprising was crushed, its leader's head delivered to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.
Chijeel said that since then, blacks have had no senior role in society and have suffered as slaves or servants, often doing the most despised jobs.
As is often the case, language is a core of the problem.
The word "abd" is Arabic for slave, and even though slavery was abolished in Iraq in 1924, it persisted for many years and many people continue to use "abd" to describe a black person.
Those who use the word say they mean no insult and use it only as a descriptive term.
Muddying the debate is the fact that some Iraqis are as dark-skinned as those of African origin. For some for whom colour is irrelevant, ancestry and tribe is paramount and unknown lineage or having a slave ancestor is unacceptable.
"I would never allow my daughters to marry an 'abd' ... Who's their tribe? Do they know who their forefathers are?" said one dark-skinned Iraqi man who declined to be named.
The Free Iraqi Movement wants the word "abd" to be banned.
The group also wants blacks to be a considered a minority, a status which gives some benefit to Iraq's Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabaks, who by their similar physical appearance to the Iraqi majority are less obviously different than blacks.
"Our fundamental demand is to be considered a minority, to have a section in the constitution protecting black people and punishing those who use the word 'abd' as defamation, in addition to getting our full rights," Chijeel said.
While these demands are unlikely to be achievable at the local level, wins for the Free Iraqi Movement in the January provincial polls could give momentum for a later parliamentary vote.
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