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Iraq: Candidates Maintain Low Profiles In Election Campaign

Election campaigning is under way for Iraq's 30 January vote. But with security a major concern, the campaigning bears little resemblance to what takes place in more stable countries. Most candidates appear in public only on television. And rallies, when they occur, are limited to a few hundred party faithful within closely guarded compounds.

Prague, 14 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In ordinary countries, intense election campaigning is key to the hopes of any political party.

But Iraq is far from ordinary. So far, most of the 270 parties contesting Iraq's upcoming poll seem to be hoping their candidates' existing reputations will be enough to do the job.

That is because the security situation in much of Iraq remains too unstable for the parties to hold mass rallies or, in some cases, even publicize the names on their candidate lists.

Such publicity would risk be far too risky. It could identify the candidates to insurgents who have killed scores of local officials, political figures, and even the governor of Baghdad province in recent weeks in a bid to disrupt the election preparations.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, formerly of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, is an analyst at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in London. "Some [candidate] lists are really not known, I mean, the names of the candidates are not known, which really makes it a little bit difficult for the voters to know who they are voting for," he said. "That is, not all the lists of course, but some of the lists are like that. It is really the security consideration that is dictating this kind of behavior."

So far, only the largest coalitions -- which include organizations with former militias -- are daring to assume a high profile.

Among these are the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes the former exile Shi'a fighting groups the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Islamic Da'wah Party. Other prominent lists are those headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, interim President Ghazi al-Yawir, and the joint Kurdish list including the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- both of which retain their well-armed peshmerga forces.

The largest parties, many of which have grassroots workers, publish their own newspapers and operate local radio stations, are the best-equipped to call out the vote and protect their supporters. But even they -- when they do hold rallies -- keep them small.
Observers say that in their campaigns, candidates are appealing to the hearts, rather than minds, of the voters.

One of the few political leaders to publicly campaign last week in Baghdad was Prince Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn, a member of Iraq's long-exiled royal family and head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. He held a rally behind the walls of a palace on the Tigris River for a carefully screened group of some 100 people.

As candidates stay off the streets, the main campaign medium is Iraq's single nationwide television channel, Al-Iraqiyah. The state-run station has been offering parties free airtime since 1 January.

Under the Electoral Code written by Iraq's Independent Election Commission, Al-Iraqiyah must give party lists equal time and cannot accept paid political ads.

Parties are also permitted to buy airtime for advertisements on some 20 licensed local television stations plus Persian Gulf-based commercial satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiyah and Al-Sharqiyah.

The U.S. daily "Los Angeles Times" reported this month that recent surveys show that some 65 percent of Iraqis now have satellite dishes. The dishes were banned under the former regime and have been sought-after items since Saddam Hussein's toppling by U.S.-led forces in April 2003.

Observers say that in their campaigns, candidates are appealing to the hearts, rather than minds, of the voters.

Ahmad al-Rikaby is director of Radio Dijla, a talk-radio station in Baghdad on which listeners and public figures air their views. He said that given Iraq's tense atmosphere, candidates and voters seem more interested in leadership qualities than detailed political or economic platforms.

"I don't think many people will ask you [a candidate] today what is your plan for the health sector, for example, what is your plan for the electricity, for example, even though people do care about this and in their daily life it's a priority. But I don't think people will elect you just because you are saying you will bring back the electricity or you will create the best infrastructure. I believe this is an election [in which people will vote] with the heart not with the mind," al-Rikaby said.

Al-Rikaby says that although the campaigning is just beginning, many people in Iraq appear to have their minds made up and will likely vote along communal lines. The campaign period continues until 28 January, the last day political advertising is allowed.

Concerns over security for the election were highlighted last week as a top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Thomas Metz, said four of Iraq's 18 provinces are still not safe enough for citizens to vote.

The four areas, all in the Sunni heartland, are Baghdad Governorate; Al-Anbar Governorate, which includes Al-Fallujah and Al-Ramadi; Ninevah Governorate, which includes Mosul; and Salah al-Din Governorate, which includes Tikrit. Together, the provinces contain more than half the population of Iraq.

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