- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

NASIRIYAH, Iraq — Fourteen years ago, Saddam Hussein created an army of weeping mothers and widows by mowing down thousands of Shi’ites suspected of taking part in a rebellion against his rule.

Now, the Shi’ites stand on the brink of real political power and are deciding how to treat the Sunni Arab minority that tormented them for so long.

“These elections are extremely important,” said Ali Dujeidi, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer from this city on the edge of the fabled southern marshes that Saddam all but destroyed. “It’s our chance to take control of the country’s future.”

There are 111 parties, coalitions and individuals running for office in Sunday’s election. But for most Shi’ites the choice is between Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s mainly secular Iraqi List slate and the United Iraqi Alliance — which will appear simply as 169 on the ballot —which has the implicit endorsement of Iraq’s highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

In either case, most analysts are certain that a Shi’ite — whether Mr. Allawi or a leader from 169 — will be chosen as prime minister by the 275-member assembly that is elected on Sunday.

It is that likelihood that has inspired many Sunnis to take up arms in a vicious insurgency aimed at derailing an election that will formalize the end of their hold on most positions of influence and power.

But the imminent power shift is also inspiring many Shi’ites to vote in spite of the danger. “Of course we put this possibility [of violence] in our minds,” said Rawa Hamed Abbas, 22, a lawyer. “But we have to vote.”

So confident have the Shi’ite become that they’ve begun to reach out to disgruntled Sunni Arabs by encouraging them to participate — if only to legitimize the huge victory they anticipate.

“We want democracy according to his eminence Sistani,” said Qasim al-Ribai, a campaign worker who planned to go to the Sunni city of Ramadi to urge locals to vote. “His eminence wants all Iraqis to participate in the election process and promote the election process.”

According to one Iraqi pollster, who asked to remain anonymous for fear he or his organization would be targeted by terrorists, the United Iraqi Alliance will finish first in the voting, with Mr. Allawi’s list placing second.

But there are huge rifts within the Shi’ite community. Some, like Mr. Allawi — a onetime CIA protege who arrived in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion and is protected by phalanxes of Western security officials — are in no hurry to see American soldiers leave the country. Other Shi’ites are demanding an early U.S. withdrawal.

“We are under occupation,” Anwar Uboud-Ali of the Loyalty to Najaf ticket said at a candidates’ forum on Tuesday. “We want this election to elect a government that beefs up the Iraqi security forces and tells the Americans, ‘Thank you for what you have done and now leave.’”

They are also divided on the role that Islam will play in a future Iraq. Pious Shi’ites — like those who support 169 — generally want to see what they call the Islamic character of the country reflected in its government.

The list’s poster campaign includes a portrait of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who as the country’s supreme spiritual guide wields tremendous influence with Shi’ites.

Senior Alliance officials were quoted this week saying that if successful, the coalition would not nominate a cleric for prime minister or any other Cabinet position. “There will be no turbans in the government,” one official told the New York Times.

But other Alliance officials made no apologies for the role that matters of faith have played in their campaign.

“This list is a smaller version of Iraq and this is why it has been blessed by the religious authorities,” said Haithem al-Husseini, an adviser to Abdel Aziz-Hakim, a midranking Shi’ite cleric whose name tops the 240-name slate.

“This election is the most important of all the elections, that’s why you have the involvement of the religious authorities.”

Ayatollah al-Sistani has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, ordering his followers to take part in the vote, but has yet to endorse any candidate in the election, whose winners will write Iraq’s permanent constitution.

“Clearly, this is a Shi’ite area,” said a U.S. Embassy official in Hilla, where colorful campaign posters adorn the city’s narrow streets. “Someone like Sistani has influence.”

Officials of the Alliance have assured U.S. Embassy officials and Western reporters that it is not a religious obligation to vote for 169. But many suspect the group delivers another message to Iraqis at the mosques.

Indeed, at Baghdad’s Baratha mosque, the faithful are urged to vote for the list after Friday prayers. The mosque has been turned into a campaign headquarters for the 169 list, with posters plastered across the walls of the mosque’s interior.

Volunteers hand out campaign literature inside the mosque and clerics declare that any voter who dies at the polls will be honored in heaven as a martyr.

“Whoever thought that this nation would kneel because tens are killed or explosions happen or that a criminal would come and commit terrorism is stupid,” Jalaledin Saqeer, the Friday preacher at the Baratha mosque, told worshippers recently.

“We will not be humiliated,” he cried. “Victory for Islam. Death to Saddam.”

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