Campaigning lively in Iraq

But deadly violence mars political season


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Despite continuing violence, Iraq's lively and colorful political campaign season was in full swing yesterday, with candidates using airwaves and the streets to grab voters' attention in the weeks before Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The campaigning has included rowdy demonstrations such as a downtown rally yesterday in support of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and catchy radio jingles: "Come and salute our list," a singer bellows during one radio ad for former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "All parties are united on our list."

To create buzz, the newly formed Iraq Future Gathering ticket has organized youth soccer tournaments and Iraqi Christians have tapped a well-known television actor to star in ads written in the Assyrian language.

But the campaign season has been hampered by Iraq's continued bloodshed, including the drive-by shootings of four workers putting up campaign posters yesterday afternoon, the first known attack of the political season. One person was killed in the shootings, police said, while the others were injured.

A wave of violence marred the run-up to Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, with more insurgent attacks launched on the day of the vote than any other day since the 2003 toppling of the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi and U.S. officials hope that widespread participation of the nation's Sunni Arab minority in the coming vote might stop the violence. But insurgents have been relentless.

A suicide car bomber rammed a crowd of people yesterday at a gas station near the mostly Sunni Arab city of Samarra, killing at least five Iraqis and injuring 16. Another car bomb in Baghdad's upscale Qadasiya district injured four civilians. Insurgents killed a U.S. Army soldier during combat operations Friday in western Iraq, the military announced yesterday.

Meanwhile in Iraq's south, sectarian bloodshed continued with the reported killing of a Sunni cleric after his abduction by men suspected of belonging to Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated security forces. The body of the cleric, a member of the Sunni Muslims Scholars Association, was found near the English cemetery in the city of Basra yesterday.

The steady violence, which drove Iraqi politicians off the campaign trail during the last parliamentary vote, hasn't stopped spirited efforts to galvanize voters for the coming election.

On ubiquitous campaign posters throughout the capital, Allawi is "the man of the current era, the man of the future." One-time Pentagon protege Ahmad Chalabi's ads say, "We liberated Iraq and we will build it together."

Each party or block is assigned a three-digit number on the ballot, and the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance was lucky enough to draw the easily remembered "555." The alliance also has resurrected the same lighted candle it used as its icon during the last election battle. The four campaign workers who were shot yesterday were putting up signs proclaiming "555."

In addition to the ebb and flow of bloodshed, several other factors will influence the shape and nature of the election campaign.

American officials housed in Baghdad's mammoth U.S. Embassy insist they will show no preferences for candidates and cooperate with whatever government Iraqis elect. But U.S.-funded efforts to promote American political ideals continue.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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