- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KARBALA, IRAQ (AP) - Iraqis seeking to punish religious parties for bad governance gave a veteran administrator the most votes in a January election in Karbala province.

But Youssef al-Haboubi won’t become governor because of a political maneuver that shows power and money _ rather than popular will _ carry the day in Iraqi politics.

Al-Haboubi’s impressive finish in Jan. 31 provincial elections has been noticed across Iraq, but especially in his native Karbala, a Shiite city 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

The candidate’s electoral triumph has dominated the local media for weeks and given residents a sense of empowerment in the face of mainstream political groups. Hundreds of his supporters rallied Saturday in Karbala’s ancient quarter to demand that he be named governor.

But that won’t happen.

Al-Haboubi ran as a single candidate rather than on a party ticket with multiple candidates. Under election rules that favor the big established parties, al-Haboubi will claim only one seat on the 27-member council.

Parties that won fewer votes, including a coalition backed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Karbala native, are expected to join forces to gain a majority on the provincial council. That will give them the power to select the governor.

The outcome of the Karbala vote is significant because the city is home to two of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, a fact that makes it one of Iraq’s wealthiest because of the tens of millions of dollars spent by visitors here every year.

That and because it is al-Maliki’s home province may account for why the secular-minded al-Haboubi was shut out.

Ironically, al-Haboubi, who won nearly 40,000 votes, or about 13 percent, could have claimed as many as 14 seats had he run with partners _ enough to have taken the governorship.

“In retrospect, yes, it was a mistake for me to run solo. But I did not want to belong to a specific party or bloc,” the unassuming al-Haboubi said in an interview Saturday at his Karbala home.

“I wanted to serve Karbala in cooperation with everyone else. But the real problem is in the elections law that allows people who won an insignificant number of votes to assume top positions,” he told The Associated Press.

Still, many in Karbala and elsewhere believe he has a moral right to the governor’s job.

“Where did our votes go?” chanted demonstrators Saturday, some of whom carried al-Haboubi’s pictures and waved Iraqi flags.

Banners proclaimed “No, no to dominating parties” and “Al-Haboubi for governor.”

“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.”

Al-Haboubi, a diminutive 61-year-old father of two, did not take part in Saturday’s demonstration. But he insisted that he was the popular choice for governor.

“It’s the will of the voters,” al-Haboubi said.

Al-Haboubi’s opponents say he has no right to the post under election rules, which were published well ahead of the election.

“Al-Haboubi represents only himself,” said Abbas Hemeid, an ally of al-Maliki who won a seat on the Karbala council and is expected to become the province’s deputy governor. “This is real democracy, not Saddam Hussein’s version of democracy.”

That alluded to al-Haboubi’s membership of the late Iraqi leader’s Baath Party.

The much heralded January vote for ruling local councils was supposed to restore a Sunni voice in much of the country’s provincial administrations that was lost because of a Sunni Arab boycott in the last vote in 2005 and the tenuous security situation at the time.

But while it produced a backlash against religious parties for their perceived failings, it showed once again that money and power could be a substitute for a less than impressive showing at the ballot box or a poor track record in governance.

Candidates backed by al-Maliki failed to win an outright majority in any of the nine Shiite provinces south of Baghdad. But they are likely to secure most of the top jobs, like governor and deputy governor, in most of them when they form coalitions with smaller groups.

Smaller groups hope the prime minister will reward them with patronage or jobs at the federal government.

As for al-Haboubi, who has served in local government jobs across Iraq’s south in a 28-year career, his strength comes primarily from the wide popular support he has in Karbala. That, residents say, is largely because of his part in rebuilding the city after Saddam’s army destroyed much of it while suppressing a 1991 Shiite revolt.

They say his record surpasses that of the city’s current administration which they allege has done little to improve main services like power and water supply. The current administration is dominated by al-Maliki’s Dawa party.

“People in Karbala had their say,” said Kazim al-Muqdadi, a political scientist from Baghdad University. “It is the legal right of the big parties to take all the top jobs, but it’s a huge mistake to shut him out and stand against the wish of so many voters.”

Another analyst, Dubai-based Mustapha al-Ani, said that after years of negligence and incompetence by local governments backed by religious parties in Iraq’s south, giving al-Haboubi the chance to run Karbala could pose a risk to them.

“If he does well, and his track record says he will, that will undermine their credibility,” he said.

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