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Candidate list hints at Iraq's political future

Former exiles, a cleric among the contenders

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's future political landscape began taking shape yesterday, as a coalition led by powerful Shi'ite Muslim groups revealed a few of its candidates in next month's parliamentary election. They include former exiles, a prominent cleric, and members of the interim government.

Backed by Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the coalition -- called the United Iraqi Alliance -- hopes to draw the bulk of the vote from Iraq's Shi'ite majority Jan. 30.

In a sign of the alliance's priorities, the number one name on the list is Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim -- the head of Iraq's largest Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In such an influential position, he becomes a likely candidate for a major government post, which the national assembly will dole out once it begins work.

Also among the top 10 are Ahmed Chalabi, a former banker and onetime Pentagon favorite, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is Iraq's interim vice president and a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, said Hakim's secretary, Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer.

All three were exiles and have been tainted in the eyes of many Iraqis. They spent years in the West or in Iran, where governments used them as hopeful conduits to gain influence in postwar Iraq.

But the alliance has the backing of Sistani, who has issued a religious edict, or fatwa, urging Shi'ites to vote. While other Shi'ites are expected to put forth their own lists -- most notably interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi -- the United Iraqi Alliance is likely to get broad support.

A central question will be the new government's relationship with predominantly Shi'ite Iran, since the main Shi'ite parties have close ties to it.

Sadreddine al-Qobanji, a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, dismissed as ''an illusion" fears that the Shi'ites, who account for about 60 percent of Iraq's population, seek to dominate the postelection government.

''We don't want a sectarian government, but an independent constitution," Qobanji said.

With the list presented, Sunni Arabs must decide whether to keep up calls for a postponement or jump into the campaign. Some Sunnis have said Iraq's violence could make a vote impossible.

Registration hasn't even gotten underway in some Sunni Arab areas where the insurgency is strongest, including Fallujah, which was devastated in a US-led invasion last month.

In a worrisome sign, one of the candidates on the 228-member United Iraqi Alliance list was killed after ignoring warnings to remove his name. Sattar Jabar, a leader of Iraq's Hezbollah Shi'ite movement, was gunned down with two other people Thursday night, aide Essa Sayid Jaafer said.

''Sattar Jabar received a threatening letter two days before the assassination," Jaafer said. ''The letter mentioned that if you are nominated, you will be killed, but he did not give the threat any attention."

Fears of participation, however, didn't stop United Iraqi Alliance organizers from amassing a broad range of candidates. The roster includes some independent Sunnis, members of the Yazidi minority religious sect and a Turkomen movement, among others.

Nevertheless, Shi'ites, particularly the established parties, dominate the list.

An adviser involved in the coalition talks said some followers of Moqtada al-Sadr were included on the list, suggesting there was some support for the radical cleric.

In their first popular vote in decades, Iraqis will choose a 275-member assembly that will write a permanent constitution and pick a new government.

The assembly created in the elections will pick a new president and two vice presidents, who will then select a prime minister. Its main task is to draw up a constitution, which -- if adopted in a referendum next year -- would form the legal basis for another general election to be held next December.

Yesterday, Iraq's electoral commission extended the deadline for candidate registration to Wednesday. The deadline had been set to expire yesterday.

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