- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KARBALA, IRAQ (AP) - Hundreds of Shiites took to the streets in one of Iraq’s holiest cities Saturday to insist that a populist candidate who won the most votes in provincial elections become governor.

The rally for Youssef al-Haboubi in the city of Karbala was the latest sign of a backlash against the mainstream and religious parties that have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The 51-year-old independent candidate won nearly 15 percent of the vote in the Jan. 31 balloting but was given only one seat on the provincial council because he ran as an independent without any political allies.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allies and another Shiite party won fewer votes than al-Haboubi but were expected to join forces to gain the majority on the provincial council, which chooses the governor.

Supporters of al-Haboubi carried Iraqi flags and pictures of him and chanted “No to dominant parties” and “We demand the rights of voters” as they converged in the area between two revered Shiite shrines.

Al-Haboubi is a former deputy governor of Karbala who enjoys tremendous popularity because residents credit him with rebuilding the city after it was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s forces as they put down a 1991 Shiite uprising.

He has drawn criticism because he was a member of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baath party, but he contends that he was not an active member.

The Coalition of the State of Law, which is loyal to al-Maliki, and the Hope of Mesopotamia won more than 8 percent each and were allotted a combined 18 seats on the 27-member Karbala provincial council.

In most of Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland, al-Maliki’s allies won the largest share of votes in a victory seen as a reward for government operations that restored security in much of the area. But his coalition failed to gain an outright majority in any province, forcing it to form alliances to govern.

Many voters also expressed frustration over the dominance of Shiite religious parties and other mainstream groups they blamed for government failures in providing services and jobs.

Resentment against the performance of religious parties is part of a realignment of political forces in the country nearly six years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

President Jalal Talabani said in a statement Saturday that he was considering not seeking another term when his mandate expires at the end of the year in hopes of broadening “the base of the political process.” But he plans to remain active in politics.

Aides to the 75-year-old Kurdish leader, who underwent heart surgery in the U.S. last year, said he was tired after nearly four years in office and wants to rest.

In Karbala, al-Haboubi captured the most votes and contends that he should be governor because of the popular support in the city, home to two of the most revered Shiite shrines 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

The outcome was particularly surprising because Karbala is al-Maliki’s home province and his Dawa Party dominated the outgoing provincial council.

“We’ve had nothing but words from the local government over the past five years,” protester Abdul-Khaliq Mukhtar said. “We’ve had enough. We want al-Haboubi because we have known him for many years. We need a man of his integrity, honor and morals.”

The elections _ held Jan. 31 without major violence but later tainted by allegations of fraud _ were seen as a chance to extend the Sunni political voice and test the strength of main Shiite parties before national races later this year.

The provincial councils have no direct sway over national affairs but carry wide powers over regional matters such as business deals and local security.

Also Saturday, the Iraqi army reported that a roadside bomb killed two Iraqi soldiers and wounded one the night before in Mandali along the Iranian border 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Baghdad.

An off-duty policewoman was shot to death Saturday in Mosul, police reported.

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