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Iraq: Election Campaigning Degenerates Into Dog-Eat-Dog Atmosphere

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi heads one of the leading parties (file photo) (AFP) The campaign season in Iraq has grown malicious in recent weeks as political parties attempt to place themselves in the spotlight at the expense of their competitors ahead of the 15 December parliamentary elections. Candidates, campaign workers, and party offices have been attacked, while party leaders have made verbal assaults and allegations against their rivals. A number of parties have accused their rivals of defacing or plastering over campaign posters, and one Sunni Arab party has alleged that government forces attacked its campaign workers.

There certainly is much at stake -- the winning list will rule the government for the next four years. But it remains to be seen how well these dirty tactics will work amid growing public apathy over the state of affairs in Iraq.

This Time Around

Iraqi voters have had much time to familiarize themselves with the leading candidates contesting the election. The past two and a half years have witnessed a Governing Council -- dominated by the major opposition figures that returned to Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime; followed by an interim government led by secular Shi'ite leader Iyad Allawi; and the current transitional government dominated by the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).
The UIA has strongly opposed entering into national reconciliation talks, claiming what Sunni Arabs call the "honorable resistance" is nothing more than a misleading idiom for "terrorist group."

The abundance of domestic and Iraqi satellite channels, radio stations, and print newspapers leave no lack of information on political leaders or their platforms in a country where the security situation prevents traditional campaigning among the people.

Compared to January's election, which was largely carried out in an atmosphere of optimism and free voter choice, the current campaign environment is more ruthless, and parties appear to be stopping at nothing to place themselves at the head of the pack.

The atmosphere has been intensified by the brevity of the campaign season, which did not get off to a running start. Political parties had until 28 October to register with the electoral commission to compete in the elections, and campaigning could have started immediately after. Instead, the attention of the competing parties was focused elsewhere.

Several political party leaders were outside Iraq in October and November, leading delegations to meetings in Europe, the United States, and Asia. Politicians were also distracted by discussions building up to the 19 November Arab League-sponsored meeting on Iraqi national reconciliation in Cairo (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 23 November 2005).

The conference, which sought to bring Sunni Arab Iraqis into the political process, came on the heels of the discovery that the Shi'ite-dominated Interior Ministry was operating secret detention centers that held scores of undocumented Sunni Arab prisoners, some of whom were allegedly tortured.

The scandal provoked a backlash from Sunni Arab leaders, who quickly inserted references to it in their campaigning, as did former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who spent much of the past year working to engage Sunni Arabs in the political process. Allawi's Iraqi National List, which has promoted national unity, is one of the lists purporting to represent a true mosaic of secular Iraqis. As such, the list is widely seen as the major contender to the larger Shi'ite and Kurdish lists.

Following the scandal, the campaign grew nasty. Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who backed the United Iraqi Alliance in January elections, announced that he would not support any particular party or list in the December elections, and urged voters to vote for the party of their choice. The announcement came as a blow for the UIA, which had previously billed itself as the most legitimate party because of the ayatollah's backing.

Shi'ite parties that defected from the UIA ahead of the elections hailed the statement, saying it helped level the playing field for those parties outside the alliance.

As the weeks went on however, media reports indicated that the UIA was claiming al-Sistani's support for the list in their campaigning. For example, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leaders made a number of references to the Shi'ite religious authority's support for the list in campaign speeches, as well as in statements posted to its website. The media has also cited clerics as lending their support to the UIA list during prayer sermons. Similar incidents were reported in Kurdistan, where imams urged their congregations to vote for the Kurdistan Coalition List (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005).

The promotion of ethnic, religious, sectarian, tribal or regional sentiments during election campaigning is officially banned by the IECI.

The Targeting Of Allawi

Administrative corruption has been a major issue in the campaign. In October, the transitional government issued arrest warrants for 27 members of Allawi's interim government on charges of corruption. Since that time, the media has seized on the issue, as have rival political parties.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite leader who heads the National Congress Coalition -- a rival to Allawi's secular list -- sought to draw attention to the scandal when campaigning against Allawi. Meanwhile, a Sunni Arab list, the Iraqi Accord Front, campaigned on a "Clean Hands" motto in reference to the corruption scandal.

But the issue extends far beyond Baghdad. The scandal prompted some parties and figures in northern Iraq to lodge similar complaints against the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Allawi counterattacked by saying the Shi'ite parties were attempting to smear his name, and contended that several ministers in the current transitional government have also abused their positions and mismanaged funds.

Allawi admitted that corruption was a problem in his administration; a problem he implied was institutionalized under the Coalition Provisional Authority. He said he took steps to investigate the allegations under his administration, but the subsequent transitional government failed to sufficiently follow up on the matter. He further contended that corruption had risen to unprecedented levels under the transitional government and implied he had evidence to substantiate his claims.

Soon after he was attacked by an angry mob outside the Imam Ali Shrine in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf in what he termed an assassination attempt.

As he arrived at the Imam Ali Shrine on 4 December, Allawi's attackers reportedly threw stones and shoes (an insult to Muslims) at him and his entourage, allegedly firing shots into the group at one point. In October, Allawi claimed to have information from reliable intelligence sources that a rival party was planning to assassinate him by luring him to a southern city and ambushing him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 2005).

More intimidation followed. Gunmen sprayed bullets in the air and set fire to Allawi's Karbala office overnight on 7-8 December.

The Sunni Position

While the Cairo conference did much to build dialogue between Iraq's fragmented sects, the positions of Sunni Arab groups on the election continue to be influenced by events on the ground.

Several Sunni leaders have been gunned down in recent weeks -- including about a dozen members of the influential Iraqi Islamic Party -- leading many to question the identity of the perpetrators. Some claim that the attacks were perpetrated by rival Shi'ite groups associated with the al-Ja'fari administration, while others have said that those behind the attacks are insurgents opposed to Sunni Arab participation in the election.

"The New York Times" reported on 5 December that one Islamic Party member was grabbed on a street in Al-Ramadi last month as he tried to pull down antielection posters hung by Al-Qaeda at a mosque in the city. Witnesses said insurgents dragged the man away; he was later found dead.

This week, the influential Muslim Scholars Association announced that it would boycott participation in the election after U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a series of military operations aimed at insurgents in the Sunni-dominated governorates. Sunni Arabs claim that the operations will do more to obstruct the Sunni Arab vote than rein in insurgents. The association did, however, stop short of banning its followers from voting in the election -- a step forward from its position in the January election.

Other Sunni Arab groups have also criticized the military operations, saying they threaten to break the tenuous truce reached between Iraqi leaders in Cairo. By adopting such a position, the groups threaten to further tarnish the image of the UIA, the leading alliance in the al-Ja'fari's administration.

Sunni Arab parties have even accused government forces of interfering in the election. The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue alleged on 21 November that people in military uniforms were seen tearing down the front's campaign posters in the Diyala Governorate. The front also alleged that the government was trying to disrupt the democratic process by fomenting sedition.

The UIA has strongly opposed entering into national reconciliation talks, claiming what Sunni Arabs call the "honorable resistance" is nothing more than a misleading idiom for "terrorist group." Supporters of the conference argue that talks with "honorable resistance" groups could be the quickest route to ending the insurgency, a view that appears to have growing street support. A reconciliation conference is planned for early next year and the UIA's position, while supported by many, may in fact hurt the alliance in the election.

Moreover, some Sunni Arab groups have already said they would not work with the current government, a position that could also influence the electorate's decision at the ballot box.

The UIA's poor performance in the transitional government has already hurt the alliance. Several members defected from the alliance last month, citing corruption and the failure of leading parties SCIRI and Al-Da'wah to share power with smaller parties in the government.

Tense Atmosphere In The North

In Kurdistan, the campaign season took a turn for the worse this week when what was described as a "mob of youths" attacked the Kurdistan Islamic Union office in Dahuk. Similar incidents against the union reportedly occurred in six other Kurdish towns on the same day.

The union pulled out of the Kurdistan Coalition last month, choosing to run on its own list in the 15 December elections. At the time, the union criticized the dominance of the two leading Kurdish parties over political life in Kurdistan and corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government as the reason for its withdrawal (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 23 November 2005).

Kurdistan's government-controlled media portrayed the attacks as a spontaneous outburst by the public, implying that people viewed the union as traitorous after the union said it would not support the Kurdistan region's draft constitution, which is a document separate from the Iraqi Constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2005).

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani criticized the attacks against the Kurdistan Islamic Union and stressed his support for the freedom of political parties in Kurdistan. He also launched an investigation into the attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005).

Union member Abu Bakr Karwani accused some rogue members of the Kurdistan Coalition list of being behind the attacks in a 7 December interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI). Meanwhile, alleged that Kurdish police and security forces were directly involved in the attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005).

Iraqi Election Poster

Iraqi Election Poster

Click on the poster for an enlarged image.

The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission issued posters in Arabic and the two dialects of Kurdish on the allocation of National Assembly seats by governorate for the 15 December National Assembly election. The poster says, "230 seats for the governorates, as well as 45 compensatory and national seats," while the corresponding map shows the breakdown of seats by governorate.

For more background on the election, click here .

For a complete archive of RFE/RL coverage, background, and analysis of the December 15, 2005, legislative elections, click here.

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