- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2005

BAGHDAD — Pictures of a black-turbaned Muqtada al-Sadr are plastered across Baghdad’s 2-million-member Shi’ite ghetto, suggesting that the firebrand cleric — once hunted by U.S. forces — will be a force in tomorrow’s national election.

Other new players who have altered the political landscape since the election of an interim legislature in January include a handful of parties competing for votes among the Sunni Muslim community that largely boycotted the earlier election.

In a reminder of the dangers facing all candidates, the leader of a Sunni party was fatally shot yesterday and a Shi’ite politician narrowly escaped injury in a bomb attack. Four U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb.

The religious Shi’ite coalition that has led Iraq for the past year remains the most potent political force, but its makeup has been altered by the inclusion of Sheik al-Sadr, whose banners hang from lampposts throughout the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.

“He is a powerful figure,” acknowledged a Western official based in Baghdad. “He certainly has a standing in the Shi’ite coalition” that is campaigning to extend its mandate for a full four-year term.

Among the Sunni politicians seeking a strong voice in the new national assembly, the most prominent are Adnan al-Dulaimi, who heads the religious Iraqi Consensus Front, and Saleh al-Mutlaq of the secular Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.

Sunni leaders, who boycotted the January vote, have called on their followers to vote this time, and a strong turnout is expected in hotbeds of the insurgency such as Ramadi, capital of Anbar province.

But terrorists continued to disrupt campaigning in the city yesterday, fatally shooting Mizhar al-Dulaimi, a Sunni and the leader of the Free Progressive Iraqi Party.

Sheik Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a Shi’ite member of the outgoing National Assembly, narrowly escaped death when a roadside bomb exploded next to his convoy south of Baghdad.

The four American soldiers, part of Task Force Baghdad, were killed northwest of Baghdad, when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, the U.S. military said.

But the routine staccato of gunfire, which rattled over the streets of the capital last night, failed to squelch the festive spirit of Baghdad residents, who jammed the streets for last-minute shopping ahead of a three-day election holiday.

Throughout the city, walls and concrete security barriers are festooned with banners and posters promoting Shi’ite parties, secular coalitions, technocrat parties and Sunni alliances.

Closed-door discussions have begun in Baghdad over who will become prime minister.

“There are already broad discussions between blocs about what things will look like,” said the Western official. “I think anything is possible, I rule nothing out.”

The Shi’ite coalition that holds a narrow majority in the 275-seat National Assembly is led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But many expect the alliance, if successful again, to promote former Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi for the job. Mr. Abdul-Mahdi is an economist who spent most of the past 30 years in France.

Also contending is secular Shi’ite leader Iyad Allawi, a former Ba’ath Party member who fled Saddam’s regime. He is seen as the strongest candidate in Baghdad, where residents are fed up with sectarian squabbles and militias that have been given free rein under the government.

Many Sunnis in the capital are expected to back Mr. Allawi, a former prime minister whose political list includes moderate Sunnis and Shi’ites as well as the Communist party.

“He will have a presence” in the new government, said the Western official, suggesting that his list could become the second or third largest party in the new assembly.

The two Kurdish parties, which hold 75 seats, again are running together in one list, and a heavy turnout is expected in the Kurd-dominated north.

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