- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Ready access to large sums of cash has given parties headed by former exiles a huge advantage in the Jan. 30 election over indigenous parties — even those whose leaders resisted ousted dictator Saddam Hussein throughout his long rule.

The edge is evident in the large numbers of TV ads and street posters promoting Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi List coalition and the United Iraqi Alliance led by another former exile, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

“There’s no doubt that money for media is going to play heavily in this election,” said a senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On the losing side of the campaign sweepstakes are parties like the National Democratic Party, whose leaders remained in Iraq through six decades of various tyrannical regimes and are offering their vision of a tolerant, democratic and unified Iraq.

With very little money from inside Iraq or abroad to promote itself, the party is expected to net only a handful of seats in the new assembly in spite of its storied history, analysts say.

Candidates for seats in the 275-member parliament are required to sign a statement vowing not to take money from foreign sources, but loopholes abound.

Officials say there’s no way to monitor or regulate the political money now believed to be pouring into Iraq, a country where most commerce still is conducted in cash.

“Let’s be honest with each other,” said the American diplomat. “No one is going to be able to monitor anyone who wants to slip funds into the hands of any given political party. What’s another cash movement?”

Mr. Allawi has been running continuous ads on Arab-language television, especially on Al Arabiya, the Dubai-based station owned by interests in Saudi Arabia, where Mr. Allawi spent a number of his exile years.

The United Iraqi Alliance, meanwhile, has been running nonstop campaign material on its al-Furat television station.

Much of al-Furat’s programming — such as interviews with citizen after citizen describing their intention to vote for the alliance — resembles state-controlled television in Iran, where many of the party’s leaders spent their decades in exile.

The alliance is a broad Shi’ite coalition that has the apparent approval of Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraqi Shi’ites’ highest spiritual leader.

Iraq also has a media commission that requires TV stations to give parties equal time, but everyone ignores it. Many of the parties have their own TV and radio stations, which seem to cover only their own candidates.

The Independent Election Commission of Iraq is supposed to enforce the rules and refer violations to the judicial system. But its own members concede they are too busy protecting their election workers from terrorists and insurgents to monitor spending by candidates.

“Most of the parties said our finances [come from] our members, and such kinds of things,” said Harith Mohammad Hassan, the commission’s deputy director. “We have no ability to check this to be sure, to investigate. If we depended on such things, maybe we’d have no election.”

Many smaller parties say the interim government has little incentive to look for violations when its own members may be among the largest culprits.

“The problem is, most of the government officials are running for the elections,” said Mishan al-Jabouri, an official in the Iraqi Homeland Party. “Their money is from questionable sources. So why would they want to monitor the elections?”

The U.S. diplomat promised that no U.S. government funding was being used to advance the cause of any party in the elections. But many minor candidates wonder where the money is coming from.

“I don’t want to mention names of countries or parties, but obviously, some people are getting money from abroad,” said Adnan Pachachi, leader of a political party.

“There’s no doubt because campaigning costs money. Obviously, there’s not much money inside Iraq, and there are very few Iraqis who have money.”

Some parties admit openly they are getting funds from Iraqis who made it big abroad.

“We depend on our people, our supporters in Iraq and other countries, our supporters in America and Europe and other countries,” said Yunadam Kanan, who tops a Christian list that plans to spend no less than $250,000 on its campaign.

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