Monday, January 3, 2005

BAGHDAD — Just months ago, Fattahlah Ghazi al-Esmaili was penning articles in support of Iraq’s Shi’ite uprising as editor for Ishriqat, a newspaper for rebel cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi’s Army militia.

Now the 38-year-old has abandoned his Arab head scarf for a neat beige suit and is out pumping the flesh in his run for parliament at the head of a 180-candidate list representing the impoverished Shi’ites of Sadr City.

“Before, we were men of the Mahdi’s Army. Now we are men of politics,” says the journalist, who goes by the pen name Fattah al-Sheikh. “Yesterday, we were out on the streets. Today, we are here campaigning, and hopefully tomorrow, we’ll be in the presidential palace.”

Despite unrelenting violence and public confusion, the campaign for Iraq’s Jan. 30 parliamentary elections is picking up steam, with candidates making discreet campaign stops and distributing information. Individuals, parties and coalitions are vying for places in the 275-seat parliament, which will name a new government, draw up a constitution and prepare for elections by the end of 2005.

Iraq’s Sunni minority, which stands to be sidelined after decades of running the country, bitterly opposes the elections. Some have joined forces with al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, last week all but declared war on the elections in a videotape broadcast on Arabic television. At least two candidates and three election workers have been assassinated since the campaign season began in mid-December.

But the Shi’ites — especially in places like Sadr City that were neglected and repressed under Saddam Hussein — generally look forward to the elections, though many are not sure for what they are voting or what free elections mean.

Even Sheik al-Sadr, who led an uprising against the U.S.-led coalition and originally opposed the elections, now appears to be withholding judgment.

Many candidates forgo street appearances or rallies in favor of well-guarded press conferences that serve to drum up attention in the press.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s loyalists in the interim government have issued a flood of press releases trumpeting their achievements, such as signing a scientific cooperation agreement with Egypt or starting work on bridge repairs in the southern city of Nasariyah.

But Mr. al-Esmaili is among the few who regularly venture into the streets of the capital, often with no escort other than his driver, a lithe amputee who walks with crutches.

In the course of the typical day, he pays his respects to fallen Shi’ite martyrs, tribal sheiks and community leaders as he shuttles from appointment to appointment in the sewage-infested Sadr City as well as smarter quarters of the capital.

“This city was oppressed in the time of Saddam,” Mr. al-Esmaili says, reciting from his standard stump speech. “Sadr City should now be like Oja, Saddam’s birthplace. Oja raised Saddam to president. Sadr City is much bigger than Oja. So we should run for elections and raise one of our own to power.”

Mr. al-Esmaili’s campaign advisers are his family and friends. He says donations from rich friends and money from his newspaper, with revenues of about $1,600 a week, fund his campaign. A wealthy friend loaned him a spacious house in an upscale section of Sadr City for use as a campaign headquarters.

The United Iraqi Alliance, a powerful Shi’ite coalition that enjoys the tacit endorsement of Iraqi religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, invited Mr. al-Esmaili to join its list, but he declined.

Followers of the Sadr family of clerics have had long-standing theological differences with followers of Ayatollah al-Sistani and political differences with the Hakim clan, whose scion, Abdul Aziz Hakim, tops the alliance list. Mr. al-Esmaili and his supporters hope to draw on the considerable number of Iraqis who adhere to the Sadr clerical line.

“We are betting on our own people,” Mr. al-Esmaili says.

Mr. al-Esmaili gets nervous when asked about his relationship to Sheik al-Sadr, and says he hasn’t spoken to him about the campaign. Clearly, the two are friends.

The screen saver on Mr. al-Esmaili’s high-tech cell phone is a digital photograph of him mugging for the camera with a smiling Sheik al-Sadr. “Muqtada is a leader,” he says, “but he put his trust in us and made all of us leaders and urged us to follow our consciences.”

To potential voters, Mr. al-Esmaili fashions himself as a blend of pious religious disciple, learned intellectual and engaged community activist.

Though he tops an electoral list called the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres and everyone he meets knows he is running for office, he rarely asks for votes, discusses details of his platform or solicits funds.

At an event commemorating the 1999 death of the revered cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Sadr — the father of Muqtada al-Sadr — Mr. al-Esmaili praises God and the prophet Muhammad and chants, “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada,” along with the rest of those gathered.

At his next stop, he and a group of supportive tribal elders try to mend fences with an important group, the Iraqi Journalists Union.

Last summer, Mahdi’s Army militiamen temporarily detained the head of the union and accused him of being a Saddam loyalist. Mr. al-Esmaili apologizes for the incident, praises the hard work of Iraqi journalists and kisses the union boss as he departs.

Far from asking the powerful tribal leaders accompanying him for campaign contributions, he insists on paying their taxi fare back to Sadr City.

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