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Iraqis take fight to political realm

Sunni candidacies intensify elections

BAGHDAD -- Sepia-toned television footage shows Iraqi men being dragged from their houses by American soldiers. Martial music rises somberly in the background. The camera pans over a row of coffins draped with the Iraqi flag, holding Sunni Arabs alleged to have been tortured to death by Shi'ite police. ''No more blood," the narrator intones. ''We will defend you," adds the candidate, Adnan al-Dulaimi.

The TV ad, among the starkest aired this week during Iraq's brief yet fiery election season, urges voters to choose the Iraqi Consensus Front, a Sunni Arab political coalition that boycotted last January's elections but is now campaigning with a vengeance.

The Sunnis' entry into a suddenly contested political race has helped galvanize a new era in Iraq's short political history.

After two static campaign seasons, Iraqi voters in recent weeks have witnessed a fierce battle in the final election of the year.

Political parties have suddenly unleashed the full power of attack ads, negative campaigns, and even threats to give the public its first taste of real competition: One party has sent cellphone text messages promising its followers a place in heaven; rivals accuse one another of being Ba'athist stooges; and opponents of the government accuse the police of ethnic mass murder.

It's all part of Iraq's first full-throttle campaign season, played out almost entirely through television ads, billboards, and posters, since it is far too dangerous for candidates to travel, hold rallies, or make public speeches.

The sleepy ads during January's national election and October's constitutional referendum usually featured still portraits of candidates, vague promises of safety and security, and for Shi'ite candidates, a claim of endorsements by Iraq's top ayatollah.

In the runup to tomorrow's election, which will choose Iraq's first National Assembly under the new constitution, that gentility has yielded to a fiery introduction to modern politics.

Shi'ite Islamist parties that dominate the current government have used their power and deep pockets to blanket Baghdad with posters, tearing down those of their rivals and sometimes even threatening campaign volunteers at gunpoint to stop affixing ads for the competition to city walls.

They have also gone on the offensive against Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, who is considered their biggest competitor for Shi'ite votes. Allawi is running on a secular ticket.

''Beware of the New Ba'athists," read banners hung by the Shi'ite Alliance, referring to Allawi's past as a member of the Ba'ath Party.

Another poster portrays Allawi's face morphing into Saddam Hussein's, and yet another shows Allawi hand-in-hand with President Bush and posing with a coalition military general -- dismissing him as a pawn of the US-led occupation.

Local and satellite television stations air political ads around the clock; one, the Iraqi Sharqia network, canceled all other programming yesterday to run nonstop paid ads.

For Iraqi voters, this campaign is the first in which candidates, when not on the attack, have presented real platforms.

Allawi has unveiled a series of ads that deal with the shortages and inadequacies that plague everyday life for Iraqis, presenting himself as ''an Iraqi for all Iraqis," a problem-solver above partisan politics.

''I want work to support myself," says a veiled woman standing in front of her daughter in one Allawi ad.

Others representing archetypal Iraqis -- in turbans, suits, and keffiyas -- tick off the litany of complaints heard every day in Iraq, demanding fuel, water, security, and electricity.

Meanwhile, in a move clearly targeting Allawi, the Shi'ite coalition has been smearing some of its rivals for wanting to include former members of Hussein's ruling party in a new government: ''Beware of the New Ba'athists," states a banner posted throughout Baghdad by the Shi'ite coalition.

People in Saydia, south of Baghdad, woke up last Friday to find the posters showing Bush and Allawi, surrounded by American bodyguards, stuck to every door. Its sarcastic slogan, supposedly from Allawi, declares: ''We will strengthen the occupation."

In Iraq, hanging posters and banners can be as dangerous as actually voting.

The Shi'ite alliance, eager to display its muscle, has deployed thousands of young militiamen from the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army as campaign volunteers. In the comparatively safe neighborhood of Karada, six masked gunmen wearing balaclavas and camouflage uniforms wove through the streets in a pickup; four stood at attention, their machine-guns cocked, while the other two hung posters depicting clerics endorsing the Shi'ite list.

Five police cars festooned with Shi'ite Islamist party paraphernalia -- violating the legal ban on campaigning by Iraqi security forces -- escorted a sound truck blaring a pro-Shi'ite political message as it drove through a busy downtown Baghdad commercial district.

The number of parties contesting this election has tripled from the number that ran in January, to 326. They are competing for just 275 parliamentary seats, helps explain why this campaign has been fought so aggressively.

No matter who wins at the ballot box tomorrow, some businesses are already counting the banner earnings from a single year with three national ballots. Television stations charge bottom-of-the-barrel rates and still rake in $2,500 a day from some campaigns. Arab satellite networks charge thousands of dollars for a single spot.

Nearly every television station was violating the official rule that banned any advertising within 48 hours of the vote.

Beyond the mosque, television has been the single most important venue for the campaign. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq boasts several nationwide channels; the Kurds have two channels; and other networks openly ally with single parties or candidates.

The medium has favored not only those with fat war chests, but those, like Sunni Arab candidate Mishaan al-Jabouri, who own their own satellite television station.

Jabouri's Al Zaoura network in the closing weeks of the campaign has come to resemble a 24-hour-a-day ad for Jabouri, evoking the coverage that state television once gave to Hussein's speeches and travels. A recent program showed a tribal folkdance troupe in Salahudeen Province performing in Jabouri's honor; the same group used to dance for Saddam.

''Mishaan al-Jabouri would not be in parliament today were it not for the brave men of the resistance," said Jabouri, describing his candidacy as the peaceful counterpart to the military struggle. ''We have chose the path of the resistance to drive out the occupier."

Iraqis are accustomed to taking their leaders' promises seriously. Hussein used to hand out cars, houses, cash, and prison pardons to thousands of people at a time. Now candidates are making promises that might sound like standard campaign poses to an American, but which in Iraq raise hopes.

''We will give back the oil to its rightful owner, the Iraqi people," reads one popular slogan for Ahmed Chalabi, the former US ally now running as a Shi'ite independent.

Many candidates aren't hesitating to try to buy the loyalty of voters whom they can't persuade by other means, also drawing on a venerable legacy of Iraq's client-driven political system.

Allawi awarded the players on the Iraqi soccer team 1.5 million dinar (about $1,000) each when they won an important match on Saturday.

The Shi'ite Alliance took a more populist approach, throwing $10 prepaid cell phone cards out the window of an SUV in downtown Baghdad.

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