(RFE/RL) - Iraq's upcoming March 7 legislative election has long been billed as a chance to heal the country's sectarian divisions.
But with the poll date just three weeks away, the country is embroiled in a controversy over whether the government -- dominated by Shi'ite religious parties -- is trying to win the vote by banning leading Sunni and secular candidates.
Now, adding to the tensions, some television stations linked to Shi'ite religious parties are airing campaign ads showing gruesome historical footage of Ba'ath Party loyalists killing Shi'a. Among the stations is Afaq, affiliated with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Al-Dawah party.
A recent ad on Afaq shows scenes of Saddam Hussein's troops killing Shi'a in the crackdown following the 1990-91 Gulf War along with later beheadings of Shi'a by Ba'ath Party loyalists following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Under the ad runs a news headline from recent weeks that reminds viewers that a leading Sunni politician, Salih al-Mutlaq, has been banned from the upcoming elections for Ba'athist connections. The implication from the juxtaposition of pictures and text is that Mutlaq is somehow tied to the killings.
Layla Ahmad, an RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent in Baghdad, says the pictures seem to have been chosen for the certain emotional impact on the TV stations' Shi'ite audience.
Ahmad says that certain parties and blocs "are trying to use certain issues to arouse the public and get as many votes as possible." She notes that Al-Forat TV, controlled by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the mouthpiece of the Iraqi National Coalition, and Maliki's Afaq, the mouthpiece of the State of Law coalition, have both aired the footage.
She says that as part of the campaign, candidates running on the parties' lists sometimes phone in to the stations after the spots run. They then introduce themselves to the audience.
The spots began appearing even before the official start of campaigning on February 12, Ahmad adds, and "both channels aired these pictures in prime time in the afternoon and at night to use them for election purpose by announcing the name and number of the political bloc, and interviewing its candidates to comment on the event."
Reaching Out To His Base
Videos of Ba'athist atrocities are nothing new on Shi'ite religious-party TV stations and the same videos are widely available on DVD in stores around the capital and other cities. They became public after the toppling of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces revealed that top party members sometimes filmed their crackdowns on the regime's opponents, perhaps as proof of their loyalty.
But for the videos to be aired now as part of campaign ads for Maliki's State of Law bloc can't help but raise eyebrows.
Maliki has previously positioned himself as a pan-Iraqi leader who appeals equally to all sectarian constituencies. That stance helped his allies, running under the State of Law banner, sweep Iraq's provincial elections last year.
In the run-up to next month's election, however, there have been many signs Maliki may be toning down his nationalist identity to be sure of still securing a large share of the Shi'ite religious-party vote.
One sign is Maliki's backing of the government-appointed commission that has banned hundreds of candidates from the poll for alleged connections to the Ba'ath Party. The bans have much popular support among the Shi'ite religious party rank-and-file. But they are likely to cost Maliki votes among both Sunnis and secularists, who see their candidates as the commission's targets.
Ahmad says Maliki may be turning to his Shi'ite religious-party base because a series of large-scale, well-planned suicide bombings against government targets in Baghdad over the past months has shaken his image as a pan-Iraqi leader able to deliver law and order. Maliki blames the bombings on Ba'athist loyalists and Al-Qaeda.
Maliki is not as popular as he was last year during the provincial vote, Ahmad notes, and the deterioration of public services and the security situation "have affected his image." But she doubts that the use of the Ba'athist atrocity images will help him much in the elections.
The commission's effort to ban selected candidates has veered back and forth over the past few weeks, with the crisis dominating the run-up to the election. Most recently, judges considering the appeals of banned candidates announced that 93 of the over 500 candidates initially flagged as having Ba'athist ties were cleared to run. The rest are barred, except for a handful of cases still being considered.
The Ba'athist Party had millions of members and Iraqis from all walks of life had ties with it, making the country's de-Ba'athification program highly complex and controversial.
The bans have led one of the main secular coalitions in the election, the Iraqi National Movement (INM), to suspend campaigning. A spokesman said on February 12 that the decision was made after the judges reversed an earlier U.S.-backed plan to postpone the appeals process until after the election.
One of the leading INM candidates is Mutlaq, whose name appears in conjunction with the gruesome campaign video airing on Afaq. Mutlaq, who left the Ba'athist Party in protest in 1977 and currently is a member of parliament, says he is being targeted by incumbent politicians who "have done nothing for the people" and fear being challenged.
In Iraq's highly charged political atmosphere, many Sunnis see de-Ba'athification as a tool to keep their community marginalized after it lost its dominant position with the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some leaders have called for the community to boycott the vote if banned Sunni candidates are not reinstated.
The question now is whether the Sunni community would actually make good on such threats. The answer may depend on how much more virulent the campaigning becomes in the next three weeks and, more importantly, how overtly sectarian.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report