BAGHDAD -- Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim preachers in Baghdad's mosques exhorted followers yesterday to vote for their sect's blocs in Thursday's fractious national elections, saying that checking the right ballot box was a religious duty.
With a leading Shi'ite figure citing Koranic chapter and verse to claim divine endorsement of the current governing alliance and normally more restrained Sunni clerics making similar assertions about opposition candidates, the linkage of religion and politics underscored the intensity of competition for seats in Iraq's first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
It also underscored the surge of religious-based politics in Iraq, which during the first decades of Hussein's rule was one of the Arab world's most secular countries.
In Baghdad, text messages sent out on cellphones in recent days have pointed to occurrences of the number five -- the five tenets of Islam, for example -- in the Koran as evidence of preordained support for the ruling Shi'ite coalition, which was arbitrarily assigned No. 555 on the ballot.
''God is great!" worshipers in one of Baghdad's leading Shi'ite mosques cried at Friday prayers. ''Allegiance to the heroes of the 555 List!"
Their prayer leader, Jalal Sagheer, told them, ''Remember that the number 555 corresponds to verse No. 61 in the Koran" -- a passage that refers to the revelation of divine intent.
''Go out on election day, and vote for the list most fit to represent you, the one that can deliver, bearing in mind that failure to do so means placing the fate of our security in the hands of others, which will lead to bloodshed," said Sagheer, a member of Iraq's National Assembly, reflecting the fear among both Shi'ites and Sunnis that power for one sect will mean persecution for the other.
Across town at the Um al-Qura mosque, Ali Zand, a Sunni cleric from the Association of Muslim Scholars, said: ''December 15th is a landmark date. It is a decisive battle that will determine our future."
''If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the occupation will continue, and the country will be lost," Zand warned in a sermon quoted by the Associated Press. ''Participation in the elections is a must, and it is a religious duty."
At another Sunni mosque, in northern Baghdad, Ahmed Hassan Taha used Friday prayers to ask insurgents to release four Western peace activists and humanitarian workers, including one American, kidnapped two weeks ago.
The previously unknown Swords of Righteousness Brigade extended to today a deadline for killing Norman Kember, 74, of London; Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va.; and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, according to the AP. All are members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and were seized two weeks ago by the group, which is demanding the release of all prisoners.
A French aid worker and a German citizen also are being held by kidnappers, the AP said.
There was no word yesterday on the fate of an American hostage, Ronald Allen Schulz, after an Internet statement in the name of the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed to have killed him.
Iraq's parliamentary elections will result in the country's first full-term, four-year government. Leaders emerging from Thursday's vote will oversee completion of a new constitution that could carve up Iraq's oil revenues; assumption of power from the US military as the country's dominant security force; and a decision on splitting Iraq into two, three, or more potentially highly independent, faction-based regions.
The elections, Iraq's third since the United States overthrew Hussein in 2003, have been characterized by slicker campaigning and dirtier politics. Rival Shi'ite militias last week shut down much of Baghdad for political marches.
On Thursday, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad cited attacks on campaign workers, political officers, and candidates in Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and Najaf, where the offices of the leading secular candidate, Iyad Allawi, were rocketed.