Prague, 28 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- No one needs to convince the candidates in Iraq's election of the risks they face from insurgent groups.
The dangers have been amply demonstrated in the past weeks by a string of assassinations of candidates and election workers and attacks on Iraqi security forces.
But despite the killings and kidnappings, hundreds of candidates are competing in the 30 January vote for a National Assembly. The assembly will be Iraq's first popularly elected governmental body since the U.S.-led intervention in 2003 and will have the power to choose the next interim government and oversee the writing of a constitution.
The candidates come from a wide variety of backgrounds. But all share a common dream that makes the risks they take worthwhile. That is a chance to win one of the assembly's 275 seats and take a role in shaping the country's future.
Candidate Hanaa Edward told RFE/RL recently that she sees the writing of the constitution as a chance for Iraqis to decide what kind of society they want after decades of dictatorship. "The main aim for me in nominating myself in [a candidate] list is the constitution," she said. "The constitution means that we are going to take our [own decisions in the] determination of the political, economical and social system in our country and in our society."
Edward is running on a small list of independent candidates. She left Iraq during the Hussein era but started a prominent Iraqi humanitarian organization in northern Kurdistan after the region fell out of Hussein's control in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Since U.S. forces toppled Hussein almost two years ago, she has been back in the capital organizing a nationwide network of health clinics.
For another female candidate, Sallama H. Abdullah, the goal is getting Iraq's economy back on its feet. She describes herself as a religious person and is running on the large United Iraqi Alliance list endorsed by preeminent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Abdullah said during a roundtable on elections at RFE/RL in November that jobs are the key to restoring peace in her society. "Many of the people sharing in making violent actions or terrorist actions are out of jobs," he said. "So having jobs for the Iraqi people will decrease the violent actions in all of Iraq. And I will say that I am a religious woman and that I can speak not [just] for a day but for a week and people will come and listen to me about these subjects. But no one will listen to me if they have jobs."
Another Shi'a candidate in the election, Ahmad Chalabi, is emphasizing what he says is Shi'a desire to be in charge of their own affairs in the south of the country as part of a future federal Iraq. "I have found that there is support from the people of the southern region to establish a federal region -- from Al-Amarah to Al-Basrah to Al-Nasiriyah. I said that the people of the south want a southern region as part of the federal union of Iraq," Chalabi said.
Chalabi, a former close ally of Washington who has since fallen out with the United States over alleged links to Tehran, is also running on the al-Sistani-endorsed list.
In central and north central Iraq, it remains unclear how many voters will turn out for the 30 January poll. There, insurgent groups -- including Hussein loyalists, Islamic extremists, and self-declared nationalists opposing foreign occupation -- have been particularly active in trying to derail election preparations.
"If five provinces do not participate in the elections, then these elections will not be complete -- they are not valid."
Some Sunni community leaders have called for boycotting the polls out of security concerns or from fear they will hand power to the Shi'a majority.
Muayid al-Adhami, a top member of the Muslim Clerics Association, a Sunni group that has called for boycotting the poll, says the vote will not be valid if restive areas of the country cannot participate. "The elections will not take place properly or fairly and they will not be accepted by everyone," al-Adhami said. "The boycott is not because of the elections but because of the circumstances surrounding them. The Iraqi people are not ready for the elections. If five provinces do not participate in the elections, then these elections will not be complete -- they are not valid."
But some other Sunni leaders are participating in the polls, including senior statesman Adnan Pachachi. An octogenarian who was foreign minister in the pre-Hussein era, Pachachi said the election is a chance for all Iraqis to build the country together.
"We all are Iraqis and, despite our religious, ethnic or sectarian allegiance, we are one people. That's why our candidate list includes Shi'a, Sunni, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkomans, Sabeans [a religious minority in Iraq] -- all representatives are listed," Pachachi said.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish candidates are expecting a large turnout as they stress the importance of winning seats in the National Assembly to protect the Kurdish-administered area's already substantial autonomy.
Mahmud Uthman, an independent human rights activist running on the united Kurdish candidate list, says his goal is a secular Iraq that respects the rights of its citizens. "[It's] very important for the Kurds that there be a democratic state, a secular state," he said. "A state that will respect the rights of individuals. We believe in majority rule, of course -- majority rule is democracy. But we think that the majority, when it rules, should [ensure] guarantees for the minorities, whether religious or ethnic, and there should always be real human right [including] the rights of individuals, of the citizens."
As the candidates and voters now await the poll on 30 January, the Iraqi government is stepping up security measures to deter insurgent attacks.
Iraq sealed its land borders on today and banned travel between provinces. An overnight curfew will also be in place in most cities over the weekend.[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]