BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Candidates began campaigning this week for the first Iraqi polls in more than three years -- a gamble for a democracy struggling to find political unity.
The provincial elections next month will take place as the United States narrows its role in Iraqi politics and security and prepares to draw down troop levels ahead of a deadline to withdraw by 2012.
Even as violence drops sharply, the United Nations warns the vote could stoke bloodshed anew as rival Shi'ite Arab parties in Iraq's south and Kurds and Arabs in the north vie for power.
Sunni Arabs, many of whom are looking for renewed political influence after staying away from the last provincial elections in 2005, will face off in western Anbar Province, a major Sunni Arab area, and elsewhere in the January 31 vote.
Iraq has made great strides in security, but full cooperation between mutually suspicious religious, ethnic, and political factions has not yet followed suit.
Many Iraqis are skeptical about politicians of any stripe as they wait for long-promised reconstruction and mourn family members killed in gruesome sectarian and random violence.
Some are more sanguine. Zuhair Nagara, an engineer strolling in a riverside park in Baghdad, sees the elections as a chance "to change the true course" of Iraq's developing democracy. "We believe these elections are a real opportunity for us," he said.
Chocolates And Music
Festive music wafted along the banks of the Tigris as supporters of Communist candidates gathered to dance, recite poetry, and distribute chocolates in an event designed to rally support ahead of the elections.
Across Baghdad, workers scrubbed walls to make way for new posters, some featuring faces of well-known Iraqi politicians urging supporters to elect their party's candidates to the influential councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Small groupings like the Communists are not expected to upset the hegemony of large national parties, such as those linked to major players like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, or Shi'ite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
More than 400 parties and 14,000 candidates will compete for 440 seats in the polls, in which Iraqis will select individual candidates rather than party lists as in the past.
In the southern city of Basra, campaigning began in earnest as candidates distributed leaflets and held opening rallies to outline campaign platforms. In the western city of Al-Fallujah, candidates went house to house to canvass voters.
Salwa Mohammed, a women's rights activist who teaches mathematics in the Saidiya neighbourhood of Baghdad, said she would reach out to youth and women as she vies for one of 57 spots on the Baghdad provincial council.
"First we need to fight the problem of unemployment. Lots of young people, because there is a lack of jobs, have looked towards terrorist groups," she said.
Seats have been guaranteed on councils across the country for women, and six seats were set aside nationally for fragile minorities like Christians and Yazidis.
New rules for campaigning, which officially began on Sunday, include a prohibition on the use of government funding.
The United Nations is training tens of thousands of observers to ensure the election is fair and transparent.