BOB GARFIELD:: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Saddam trial was back in session in Baghdad this week. This time it lasted a full three days in a row before being adjourned once again by the judge. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ON-AIR REPORTER:: Good evening. We begin tonight in Baghdad, Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was at it again.
ON-AIR REPORTER:: First live witness against Saddam Hussein testified in an Iraqi court today after a considerable amount of - [SOUND TRAILS AWAY]
ON-AIR REPORTER:: At one point he said he is not afraid of execution. He also threatened the judge and tried to intimidate a survivor of the 1982 massacre which he is accused of ordering - [SOUND FADES OUT]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Here, the coverage has played up the drama of the proceedings, giving us glimpses of courtroom fireworks. But for such an anticipated trial, we've seen strikingly little of what's happened in between. Only Court TV's online stream has provided the proceedings in their entirety. In Iraq, however, the trial is most definitely the TV event of the season. Los Angeles Times Reporter Borzou Daragahi is in Baghdad. He says that even as the country's Parliamentary election campaign enters its final days this week, Iraqis were glued to their sets for the latest developments in the trial of the century.
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: They're watching in their homes, in their living rooms, in shops. They gather around each other. It's a very big event and they are watching in droves. They are mesmerized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Do you see different responses or is it just sort of that kind of car wreck fascination?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: I think there is a little bit of that, but I think that often they view it through the prism of their sectarian or regional or ethnic affiliations. For example, you know, if you go to a Sunni Arab part of town or Sunni Arab parts of the country, they view this trial as a humiliation of Iraq. If you go to the Kurdish-controlled parts of Iraq's north, they see it completely the other way. They want the trial to go on because they want Saddam to be further embarrassed and punished. And it seems like every single ordinary Iraqi has some kind of stake in this trial. I mean, the government here - this is their campaign poster, essentially, bringing up the fact that this history exists, that, you know, some of their secular opponents were a part of the Baath party, plus they go into the elections saying, "Hey, we were the guys who brought Saddam Hussein to trial."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So let's turn now to the election season. On Thursday, voters will elect a new Parliament. This is the third election that's taken place there? How's the campaigning for this one compared to the other two?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: I would say that there's a lot more campaigning going on now. You know, there was a real problem in the January Parliamentary elections in that the Sunni Arabs were dead set on sabotaging the election in any way they could, so in the run-up to that election there was a lot more violence. And much of the campaigning in the January elections amounted to ads by one candidate on Arab television, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and that was his whole strategy is to, like, "Look, I can't get out there and campaign so I'm just going to pour money into advertising." But I think there's just a real fundamental misunderstanding about how an Iraqi might view that. You know, they see a lot of slick ads on television and they think, "Oh, my God, that's so wasteful. I can't believe he's got so much money and he's it spending on this." "I don't trust him. He looks too American. He looks too Western." Meanwhile, the Shiites, the United Iraqi Alliance, use the mosques to get its voters out. Ultimately, we saw which one worked better. The Shiite list trounced every single other political group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So has he learned that lesson this time around?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: One thing that he's done that's kind of interesting is he wears a tie a lot less. Now he just wears a white shirt and a sports jacket, had he looks a lot like, you know, a typical pious Shiite merchant rather than what he looked like before, which was like a Western businessman or professional.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: How are the Shiite candidates playing up their campaign?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: You know, actually, their problem has been to appeal to those secular Shiites who maybe they want to vote for the party of their sect but they don't want their professional wives to be forced to stay home. They don't want to be forbidden from drinking alcohol. So ironically, their campaigning is, you know, they keep emphasizing that they're for freedom, they're for tolerance. I saw a poster today for this party that said, "The United Iraqi Alliance puts women first." You know, they're trying to counter the image that they're a bunch of, you know, very religious Neanderthals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Let me ask you about negative campaigning, which may take on an altogether different aspect in Iraq than it does here. Here when we talk about poster wars, we don't necessarily talk about killing people who put up posters. I know it's happened during this campaign, even though this campaign has been less violent by far than the previous one. So in terms of classic negative campaigning, has there been a lot?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: You know, you got to figure all of these people - Allawi, the leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, Ahmed Chalabi, the Kurdish leaders -- I mean, these are all former Iraqi exiles who know each other. You know, they've been through a lot of hell together, as a matter of fact, so there's a certain solidarity borne in there that will never divide them completely. So it doesn't get too negative. On the other hand, you know, this competition for the Shiite swing vote, let's call it, is very intense. You know, I mean, one really interesting phenomenon that I've seen is a few negative posters, especially in Sadr City, one showing Allawi's head merging into the head of Saddam Hussein, a clear reference to Allawi's past as an early supporter of the Baath party of Saddam Hussein. And there's also a kind of an interesting dynamic at work where within a coalition you'll have one member of the coalition attacking a rival opponent and then another member of that coalition saying, "No, no, no, we don't agree with that." So you have this sort of triangulation strategy, you know, like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, where you have this sort of culpable deniability with regard to the negative campaigning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Wow. They seem to have evolved or devolved very quickly into much of American-style campaigning. Can you talk to us about the campaign coverage? Are they talking about issues or are they a lot more sophisticated, like us, and pretty much confine their conversation to the horse race?
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: You know, absolutely. They only seem to talk about issues. It's quite, actually, touching. They have these debates that are on Alhurra, which is the U.S.-funded station, and Iraqia, which is the state-owned station, where the candidates come and they talk in a really civilized way about issues. They talk about federalism. They talk about the economy. I think the problem is in this time of chaos and violence, people tend to retreat toward their sects, and this dynamic is overcoming the efforts towards moving towards moving toward a more substantive politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So the conversations may be about issues, but what it boils down to in the end is you vote for the people you know who represent who you are, even if you don't agree with them.
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: Yeah, absolutely. And I've been talking to Iraqi Shiites who are secular, who, you know, drink. They have very modern lifestyles, yet they're going to vote for their sect because they just don't know what's going to happen in Iraq and, "Hey, we have to stick together." And I think that's kind of sad, but I think that's what happens in a country where there's so much insecurity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Borzou, thank you very much.
BORZOU DARAGAHI:: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Borzou Daragahi is Baghdad correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]