make their political debut in provincial polls
Inspired by Obama, persecuted minority hopes for breakthrough in elections
# Martin Chulov in Basra
# guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 January 2009 16.47 GMT
In Iraq's deep south another American-led revolution is stirring. But this time it is being sparked by popular voice, not bombs.
The country's 1m-plus black citizens have tapped into Obama-mania like few other groups across the Arab world. For them Obama's inauguration was the dawn of a civil rights movement that they never had the impetus to strive for.
Black Iraqis will this week stand for the first time as an electoral bloc in provincial polls that will help shape Iraq in its slow transition to full sovereignty and possibly help shake off the stereotype that places them near the top of the heap in a nation of persecuted minorities.
Like the marsh Arabs to the north of their relative stronghold in Basra, black Iraqis are an underclass who find it near impossible to rise above their time-worn status of hard-labourers and peasants. Up to 50% of black Iraqis migrated to the Arabian Peninsula after the birth of Islam 1,500 years ago.
The rest have come steadily in the centuries since, some trafficked as slaves and others lured by broken promises of riches. All have been typecast, "just as the blacks of America were", said Jalal Dhiyab, number two on the electoral list of the Secretary of the Free Movement of Iraqis.
"We joined this election because we felt we could break the wall surrounding Iraqi society and the climate of fear we have felt for generations," he said.
"Black people have been treated very poorly throughout Iraqi history. The oppression has stopped us from joining many levels of society. It has restricted our education. We have become a social underclass. We are taking part in the new elections to give black Iraqis a new purpose in Iraq."
Obama's victory was a milestone in the history of democracy throughout the world, said Dhiyab.
"It is a victory for freedom. He has experienced suffering and seen serious challenges in his life. And yet he has reached the White House where decisions are made that affect all the people in the world. We hope that Obama's policy in Iraq differs from Bush's policy here. The Bush regime destroyed lives and infrastructure and fractured the whole of Iraqi society."
The Free Movement of Iraqis is putting forward eight candidates in the provincial poll, in which 1,272 candidates are standing for 35 seats in the Basra province. Around 30% of the nominated candidates are women.
The polls will be held on 31 January, ahead of national elections later in the year.