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Bahrain to hold elections today

Arab country saw bitter campaign

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Campaigning has been dirty and divisive ahead of parliamentary elections today in this US Gulf ally: Mobile text messages warn voters that a landmark Shi'ite Muslim victory would turn Bahrain into a new Iraq and that female candidates will spread immorality.

Shi'ites, in turn, accuse the Sunni-run government of plotting to rig the voting against them in the first election where they stand a chance of turning their demographic majority into political power.

Bahrain, like Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003, is run by a Sunni minority that has managed to block the country's impoverished Shi'ite majority from power.

Shi'ites are believed to make up about 60 percent of the population.

The vote will be closely watched by neighboring Arab monarchies, concerned about rising Shi'ite influence. The opposition Shi'ite and leftist parties boycotted the 2002 elections, the first since the constitution was restored.

But now they say they will have a strong showing unless there is fraud.

Turnout is expected to be high in this tiny island nation of 700,000 citizens, driven by a bewildering array of parties and candidates.

The spectrum ranges from hard-line Sunni Islamists, including a jihadist party whose leader was briefly arrested for suspected ties to Al Qaeda, to groups seeking Western-style social liberties in a country that hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

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