- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi political campaign colored by hope and tempered by worry begins today, the deadline for registering candidates and the first day politicians can begin promoting themselves in earnest.

Communists, monarchists, Islamists, Christians, Kurds, secularists and others have submitted their lists of candidates for seats in the 275-member parliament, which will draw up an Iraqi constitution and pave the way for further elections by the end of 2005.

Despite harsh security risks, Iraqi politicians and voters — even pessimists who have argued unsuccessfully for a delay of the election — can barely contain glimmers of hope as they prepare to take part in Iraq’s first multiparty elections in nearly half a century.

“It’s the chance to prove that this movement is a democratic one and to prove to the Iraqi people the love that we have for them,” said Sami Mohammad Saleh, an adviser to the Iraqi Free Officers and Civilians Movement, a small secular party.

Many ordinary Iraqis are also looking forward to voting. “Of course we’re going to participate in the election,” said Sirab Sulayman, a 27-year-old laborer. “We are Iraqis and this is our chance to shape our future.”

The candidates have put their names forward knowing they will likely be targets for terrorists bent on preventing the establishment of Western-style democracy.

Several have already been killed, and many parties have decided to keep their candidates’ lists private until the last possible moment.

Voters will also face the prospect of violence at 9,000 polling places to be set up throughout the country. Organizers worry that many Iraqis, especially among the once powerful Sunni minority, will simply stay away.

Other problems include an electricity crisis that will make it difficult for politicians to reach voters with television commercials, and a fuel crunch that forces many Iraqis to spend hours each day waiting in line for kerosene or gasoline.

Nevertheless, the politicians say they will plaster city walls with posters, hand out leaflets, canvass neighborhoods and buy spots for television commercials.

“We’ll be using standard campaigning techniques,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, heir to the Iraqi monarchy and head of the Constitutional Monarchy Party, which has submitted a list of some 40 candidates. “Our people will be campaigning door to door. We’ll be using pamphlets and the media to get the word out.”

In the Jan. 30 balloting, each voter will cast a single ballot for one of the several lists of candidates being offered. Seats in the new assembly will be assigned in proportion to the percentage of the vote each list receives, beginning with the names at the top of the list.

The largest bloc of votes is expected to go to a list headed by candidates of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which includes most major Shi’ite groupings and is said to be tacitly endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

A combined list presented by the two main Kurdish parties will also fare strongly, with high voter turnout expected among Iraq’s 4 million to 5 million Kurds, most of them living in the relative safety of their semi-autonomous enclave in the north.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who declined to join the so-called Shi’ite list, has prepared his own list of candidates. Political observers say he will likely win at least a seat for himself in the parliament and then try to maneuver his way back into the prime minister’s office.

Sunnis, however, worry about being shut out. Because all of Iraq will be treated as a single district in this election, there is no guarantee that the new assembly will include representatives from Sunni-majority cities such as Mosul and Fallujah.

The high level of violence in Sunni areas and an election boycott proclaimed by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a prominent body of Sunni clerics, have worsened those fears.

“There are threats against the voter registration people, there are threats against the voters,” said Abdullah Bayati of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that has long urged a six-month delay in voting. “People are afraid to participate.”

There are also questions about how the parties will fund their campaigns. Some politicians suspect the United States will funnel money toward parties it prefers, such as Mr. Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord. Other candidates are accused of getting backing from neighboring Arab countries.

The biggest worry is that Iran — which shares religious ties with the Shi’ites and cultural ties with Iraqi Kurds — will try to prop up its favorites.

“I think the number-one beneficiary of all this are the parties that are backed by Iran,” said Hatem Mukhlis, leader of the Iraqi National Movement, a small secular party.

A media commission will monitor political expenditures and make sure that foreign countries don’t flood the airwaves, said Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, which has organized the election. But it remains unclear how other election irregularities might be identified.

“We are not the establishment that monitors,” he said.

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