Image: Election campaign in Baghdad
Muhannad Fala'ah  /  Getty Images
Supporters of former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, head of the secular Iraqiya wave flags at an election campaign rally on Thursday in Baghdad.
updated 3/4/2010 5:54:43 PM ET 2010-03-04T22:54:43

There were no politicians kissing babies at the campaign rally, but it came close.

The band played, men danced and women swayed to the music as a speaker worked the crowd before the arrival of the main candidate — former prime minister and secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who made his way to the podium shaking hands and waving to well-wishers.

The scene may be common in the West, but it's a world apart from the more somber campaigning by Iraq's dominant religious parties. In many ways, the two styles point to the choice Iraqis have to make in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Early voting, which began Thursday, was marred by a series of attacks that killed at least 17 people and wounded dozens. The bombings, two of which occurred outside polling places, appeared aimed at discouraging voters, which included soldiers, police officers and others who might have difficulty getting to the polls Sunday.

Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the elections that will ultimately determine who runs the country when U.S. forces go home by the end of next year.

Voters basically have two choices: Will the country continue to grow more religiously conservative, as it has since Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster, or will secular coalitions be able to win big enough to help steer Iraq away from a government that resembles Iran's hardline clerical regime.

Two camps
Shiite parties have dominated the political landscape in Iraq and alienated the Sunni Arab minority since the fall of Saddam, who was a Sunni.

Allawi's bloc brings together a secular alliance of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. It provides a stark contrast to the religious orientation of the two large, Shiite-led coalitions led by the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.

Like all other blocs in the running, Allawi's is not expected to win an outright majority in the 325-seat legislature, but it could do well enough to be courted by the winning bloc to join a coalition that will govern Iraq for the next four years.

It's too early to say whether Allawi would join one of the two Shiite-led alliances, which he has harshly criticized for their perceived sectarian policies and failure to improve the economy and create jobs.

The contrast between the two camps was clear Wednesday at an Allawi rally in Baghdad attended by nearly 1,000 supporters and another held three days earlier by the SIIC-led coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.

Nationalist message
At Allawi's rally, a band of drums and trumpets played, with one musician wrapped in Iraq's red, white and black national flag and a makeshift hat made of an Allawi campaign poster. A singer later took over and two dozen men, some in traditional Arab garb, did a "chope," a group dance in which men hold hands while performing in a line.

Some of the Iraqi soldiers maintaining security had small paper flags stuck in their helmets, with one side bearing the image of the Iraqi national flag and the other the word "Iraqiya," the name of Allawi's alliance.

The podium was covered with an image of Allawi, and a giant Iraqi flag dominated the back wall. When Allawi arrived, the crowd erupted with chants of Abu Hamza, the former prime minister's nickname. Parents hoisted their toddlers for him to see and women joyfully ululated.

With him on the podium were top aides and other alliance candidates, including female supporters and candidates wearing sharp business suits, coifed hair and makeup. They waved their flags in sync with the music and cheered with the crowds.

His message was distinctly nationalist.

"Iraq continues to live a predicament that touches every one of us, and it's time to achieve a genuine and broad partnership in which no discrimination exists between Sunnis, Turkomen, Kurds, Shiites and Christians," he said in a speech interrupted by music and chants of "Iraq wants Allawi."

"Together, we will defeat the forces of darkness, God willing, and our people will be victorious."

On Sunday in northern Baghdad, the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance held its own rally. The crowd of about 200 was almost exclusively men, including dozens of tribal chiefs, and the atmosphere was subdued.

'The marjayah'
Scratchy recordings of patriotic songs played, and the half dozen candidates seated on stage looked more like a panel of judges — all wore business suits except one, a cleric in robes and a turban — than election hopefuls reaching out to voters.

Slideshow: Iraq goes to the polls

There was only scattered applause, mostly halfhearted or initiated by aides standing on either side of the podium.

The main speakers were senior SIIC leader Humam Hmoudi and Ahmad Chalabi, a one-time Pentagon favorite who heads a committee that has banned 440 candidates, the majority of them thought to be Sunnis, from running in the election because of alleged ties to the Saddam regime.

In a somber address, Hmoudi dwelled on a fatwa, or religious edict, issued last month by the country's top Shiite cleric urging Iraqis to turn out in large numbers to vote. It was one of many attempts by SIIC-led alliance to win votes by associating itself with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a deeply revered, Iranian-born cleric who has declared he will not endorse any campaigns.

"The marjayah," said Hmoudi, using the Arabic word for Shiite clerical leadership which is taken to mean al-Sistani, "has made us grow accustomed to its support in the interest of the nation."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Amid violence, Iraqis head to polls

  1. Closed captioning of: Amid violence, Iraqis head to polls

    >> station.

    >>> as the debate over iraq continues, so does the war itself, with another election at hand and new violence just today that left at least 17 dead, but life is very different for the nearly 100,000 americans still stationed in iraq . the story from our chief foreign correspondent richard engel who is in iraq tonight embedded with the first armored division .

    >> reporter: they were lined up to vote when a suicide bomber in baghdad slipped into the crowd, but american troops today didn't secure any of the blast sites. america's new mission in iraq is now strictly behind the scenes . to understand it, we joined a scout platoon living on an iraqi police station in southeast iraq . here, lieutenant jesse crimm coordinated american drones over voting stations.

    >> we are not kicking down doors in any way.

    >> reporter: no direct combat as u.s. soldiers are severely limited. under a new security agreement , u.s. troops are mostly confined to their bases. they rarely leave without iraqi permission. it's a training mission now, and some american soldiers have mixed feelings about it. when sergeant kyle fogerty was in baghdad three years ago, his unit was attacked by roadside bombs 18 times a week. this time, most of his soldiers haven't fired a shot.

    >> that's a positive thing. i mean, seeing all the hard work we put in over the past years has paid off.

    >> reporter: but some soldiers here feel they're no longer needed.

    >> i believe it's time for us to move out. it's come to the point where we train these guys, they already know everything we're training them. they are acting on it, and you see the success.

    >> reporter: time to go?

    >> it's time to go home.

    >> reporter: his platoon leader disagrees, but admits most of his soldiers would rather be in afghanistan, in the fight, not cooped up on base.

    >> if you trained to be a doctor and then you came to a country and all you did was help out doctors, you had to stay in the waiting room and trying to help them out the best you can. that's basically what we are doing here. it's frustrating at times, but necessary.

    >> reporter: it's a new role and some soldiers here are struggling to adjust. richard engel , nbc news, nasiriyah.

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