Reporting from Baghdad — Hunkered down in a community outside Baghdad, Raad Ali watched the national elections Sunday in anonymity. No one bothers him here. Strangers think he is just another displaced Iraqi from the capital.
The days are long, and he misses his wife and children.
He believes that the election results could mean either his return home or exile, far from his loved ones.
With his button-down shirts, slacks and habitual smile, Ali looks like an unassuming civil servant or eager salesman growing into a chubby middle age. The only sign of worry is his five o'clock shadow.
A little over two years ago, he was shaking U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno's hand in his old neighborhood, Ghazaliya, where Ali commanded one of the first Baghdad branches of a Sunni paramilitary movement that helped restore calm to Baghdad. Now Iraqi security forces are hunting him, despite the fact that he took on the Mahdi Army and Al Qaeda in Iraq in his west Baghdad neighborhood.
Ali prays that the national elections will solve his problems. If Iyad Allawi wins, he thinks there would be a place for him in his country. If Nouri Maliki or another Shiite Islamist wins, he believes the harassment will never stop. It would only be a matter of time before he was jailed and separated from his family forever.
"If Allawi doesn't win, the future is dark," he said. "They will target everyone."
He thinks the grudge goes back to the world before 2003, when he was an officer in the Iraqi special forces and today's rulers were fighting the state from the outside. Those divisions have yet to heal.
Neither Ali nor even the U.S. military knows the specifics of the charges against him, only that a warrant has been issued accusing him of terrorism.
Ali is not the only one hiding. He talks about friends who left the capital before the elections. More than 60 members of Sunni tribal, paramilitary and religious groups in Baghdad and its surrounding rural belt have been jailed since summer, a senior U.S. military official said.
Some have ended up in the jails of the Iraqi special forces or the Baghdad Brigade, an army unit controlled by Maliki.
"Maybe there is a plan to disrupt Sunni areas," the military official said. The detentions have added a chill to the dynamics of Iraqi politics, alongside the more publicized de-Baathification purges during the election campaign.
Ali's life underground began as the Americans prepared to leave cities last spring under the new Iraqi-U.S. security agreement. Last March, Iraqi forces raided his home, next to a U.S. military base, where he commanded his paramilitary troops. After eight days in jail, a judge ordered Ali's release and dismissed the charges against him, including allegations by a secret informant that he was a local head of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The release came after the U.S. military lobbied for his freedom. At the time, Ali was confident that he could get on with his life. His enemies had brought him to court, and he had been cleared.
Instead, within weeks of his freedom, he received more tips from friends in the Iraqi security forces that some officers were planning to jail him. Once last summer, the Iraqi army detained him for two hours, but he was let go because there was no warrant.
In September, a strong sense of foreboding pushed him to relocate his family. On the day he was moving, Iraqi military forces raided Ali's headquarters and former home. By chance, Ali was at his new house unpacking when he heard that security forces were looking for him.
He severed contacts with friends and tried to vanish in Baghdad. He settled into his underground life, telling himself that as long as he stayed away from Ghazaliya, the Iraqi government wouldn't bother him.
But he soon found himself keeping his eyes on the rearview mirror for suspicious cars and became wary of everything.
After a few months, he and his wife decided that it would be better for him to leave the city.
From his hiding place, he occasionally phones his teenage son and two daughters. Ali has always been the disciplinarian, so he tells his children to do their homework and scolds them for disobeying their mother.
"I want to see them and smell them," he said. "I miss them too much."
He has risked visiting Baghdad to see them a few times. He surprises his family with a call when he is just minutes away.
His wife tells him to leave the country if he must; she'll pretend he is in jail.
If he leaves, he will go to an Arab country first and then, maybe, try to head to the United States. He hopes that his old friends in the U.S. military and the American Embassy will help him, but he has had no serious contact with them in four months. He hopes the situation will be clear soon.
The last time Ali was in Baghdad, his youngest daughter begged him to take her with him.
"I told her after the elections maybe everything will change," he said as he sat on a couch in his hide-out, his voice full of affection for his daughter. But then his mood turned.
"Honestly, I have no hope," he said. "Really, I have no hope."