January 23, 2005


Where candidates hide, one Iraqi hits the stump (Dan Murphy, 1/24/05, CS Monitor)

In a country where some candidates address the electorate only from behind blast-proof walls and others are so stealthy that their names are secret, Sadr City's Fatah al-Sheikh stands out.

In an election season with few campaign rallies and fewer public appearances by candidates, Mr. Sheikh incongruously displays all of the techniques of a Western politician. If a baby were around, he would surely kiss it. Here on Baghdad's meanest streets, he beams for a TV camera and backslaps passersby.

"Why should I be afraid?'' asks Sheikh, a onetime spokesman for a militant cleric who now heads his own list of candidates in Iraq's Jan. 30 election. "The people here know us and respect us. They know we'll fight and die with them."

The residents of Sadr City, an impoverished sprawl of 2 million Shiite Muslims on the northeast edge of Baghdad, have known much about fighting and dying over the years, and their sense of grievance and suspicion of outsiders is something that Sheikh is hoping to tap into. With nearly 10 percent of Iraq's population, the district is a rich electoral prize. [...]

Officially, Sadr is sitting the election out. Though he encourages Shiites to vote in what is likely to be the first chance for the country's Shiite majority to take power since Iraq was founded, he also expressed ambivalence about an election taking place under the auspices of the US and the interim leadership, many of whom he's attacked as American puppets.

"In principle, we are 100 percent for elections,'' says Ahmed al-Qurayshi, a Sadr aide. "But we insist that votes are cast and counted fairly. We feel the US might be trying to engineer a result behind the curtains."

Even so, Sadr appears to be hedging his bets. In addition to the list headed by Sheikh, leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance list, a coalition of Shiite religious movements that has the support of Sistani, say about 10 percent of their candidates are Sadr supporters.

The presence of the Sadr supporters' list underscores the wide range of views among Shiites, and the likely wrangling that will take place once a largely Shiite parliament sits. The Sistani list has everything from secular politicians to, at its fringes, supporters of an Iranian-style theocracy.

Sheikh says he expects to sweep the vote in Sadr City. "Look at them - they're all ready to fight,'' he says, smiling out from a close-cropped beard.

But combing Sadr City's streets suggest he may be disappointed. "We have the greatest respect and admiration for Moqtada and his men,'' says Kassim Ghali, a 23-year old with slicked back hair. "Everyone knows that they were the ones to stand up to the Americans, but I'm voting for 169 - the Sistani list."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 6:58 PM
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