- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Sunnis have come out swinging in the final days before watershed parliamentary elections, disparaging the ruling Shi’ite alliance as Iranian puppets and warning that, if re-elected, they will turn Iraq into a Talibanlike state.

The alliance, meanwhile, has been strengthened by a barely disguised weekend endorsement from the nation’s pre-eminent Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who had previously said he would not intervene in the contest.

Sunni Muslims, who largely boycotted the election in January, say they are determined to stop the Dec. 15 re-election of the religious-based alliance led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and backed by Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim’s Shi’ite-dominated Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

“People are talking and behaving as if they are from Iran. Yes, it is dangerous, not only for Iraq, but for America. Their main goal is to gain power, then they are going to work for Iran,” said Nabeal Younis, senior lecturer at Baghdad University.

Iraqi businessmen working with the Interior and Oil ministries complain that the Iranian language, Farsi, is being spoken inside the offices rather than Arabic. Iranian money is openly used in parts of southern Iraq and even in Baghdad.

“If you go now to Akademiya area, in the shops, they are talking Farsi, and they are buying and selling with Iranian money. This in Akademiya, here in Baghdad,” said one engineer, who asked to remain anonymous.

“You cannot even enter Akademiya without a hijab,” a traditional Muslim scarf that religious women wear, said the engineer, a Sunni Muslim, who had taken his wife shopping in the area.

Nevertheless, the alliance’s chances have been enhanced by the intervention of Ayatollah al-Sistani, whose office has begun distributing leaflets instructing his roughly 17 million followers on how to vote.

Voting in the Dec. 15 election, which will give Iraq a four-year legislature under a new constitution, “is obligatory for all those eligible,” say the fliers.

However, “it is forbidden to vote for weak [political] lists … because it will dissipate our votes,” they continue. It is also forbidden “to vote for people who are not followers of Islam and its rules.”

Those instructions, which will carry great weight with religious Shi’ites, effectively rule out any electoral list except that led by Mr. al-Jaafari.

Two U.S.-allied politicians, meanwhile, are turning to hardball tactics in the battle for the votes of secular Shi’ites. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi accused former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at a press conference yesterday of leading a corrupt government during his tenure in 2004.

Mr. Chalabi joined forces with the religious Shi’ites in January, but recently left the coalition to create his own political party. He is expected to win votes from his extended family, but not gain a significant number of seats.

He has been hobbled by his relationship with the United States and is wanted in Jordan on charges of fraud, leading some in the city to refer to him sneeringly as “the thief of Petra” — a famous ancient city in Jordan.

Baghdad residents think Mr. Allawi has a better shot at winning a significant bloc of seats in the new assembly.

“I hope Allawi will win because he is a strong man, and I hope he can bring good control to this country,” said Ali, a worried father of two who rarely lets his wife out of the house for fear of kidnappings and bombings.

Like many in the capital, Ali — who asked that his full name not be used for security reasons — said he thinks Mr. Allawi is the only candidate tough enough to haul the country back onto its feet.

Christians were advised in their churches last week to vote for Mr. Allawi, whose list includes a number of moderate Sunnis. The goal is to limit the power of the religious Shi’ite list — known as 555 — whose leaders include firebrand anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Shi’ite strongholds such as Sadr City in Baghdad, doctored posters of Mr. Allawi have been pasted along the walls, showing his face blending into that of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

“He is hated here” because of his former membership in Saddam’s Ba’ath party, said Kamel, a resident of the sprawling slum.

Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population and are expected to vote in force next week, will likely split their votes between the two main lists.

The Iraqi Accordance Front, an Islamist anti-occupation bloc led by Adnan al-Dulaymi, and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, headed by Saleh al-Mutlaq, both should fare well in the insurgency-troubled cities of Ramadi, Mosul and Kirkuk.

“They have to participate in the elections; it is one of the means of ending the occupation. You can’t just resist with weapons, you need to use all your weapons to gain your freedom. If we achieve it politically, then we will not need to fight,” said Mr. Younis, the Baghdad University lecturer.

Militant Sunnis maintain that any election held with U.S. forces in the country is illegitimate, but say they will withhold their fire so that their fellow Sunnis can vote.

However, there has been no such assurance from Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born religious extremist, who is leading a terror campaign to disrupt anything perceived as pro-Western, including the elections.

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