Facing a skeptical and sometimes hostile crowd, 13 candidates vying for seats on Baghdad's provincial council passed around a microphone for three hours during a town hall debate this month as voters threw out questions and challenged their answers.
"Should the militarizing of Iraq continue?" one woman sitting in the front row wanted to know.
"How are you going to deal with run-down buildings?" a man asked. "And the housing crisis?"
"How much have you spent on your campaigns?" an Iraqi journalist demanded. "Especially the big religious parties?"
At events like this one, at a social club in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians campaigning for seats in the Jan. 31 provincial elections have promoted themselves vigorously and engaged voters on both global and grass-roots issues.
This brand of retail politics marks a dramatic shift from campaigns conducted in 2005, the last time Iraq held elections nationwide. Amid growing violence at the time, most candidates ran largely faceless campaigns under the umbrellas of established parties defined by sect and religion.
While most of the established parties remain in the game, a staggering number of new faces and coalitions are jockeying for support at a time when American influence here is waning and dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government runs deep.
More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 440 seats on provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Some are running as independents, but the majority belong to more than 400 political blocs, known here as lists, roughly 70 percent of which are new.
'Individuals will be accountable'
Around the country, the ubiquitous cement blast walls that in recent years have divided and protected Iraqis are wallpapered with political posters. Newspapers are packed with campaign ads. The airwaves are cluttered with campaign jingles. And candidates' photos and slogans appear on T-shirts and balloons.
In 2005, parties that got the most votes appointed members for seats. This time, an "open ballot" will allow voters to choose individual candidates within parties. "Individuals will be accountable to [voters] about what is going to happen on the ground," said Stefan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Iraq.
Hassan al-Tahan, a Shiite candidate for Baghdad's provincial council, came up with a particularly creative way to attract voters: He printed his photo on an oval-shaped blimp, much like the ones the U.S. military uses around Iraq to conduct surveillance.
Sabir al-Isawi, the head of the Baghdad provincial council, who is running for reelection, has a campaign poster with a photo of himself looking upward, juxtaposed against an image of a child drinking dirty water from a broken pipe.
A rival campaign has been running television ads that show Isawi's photo and ask, "What has this man done for Baghdad?"
The provincial contests, as well as national parliamentary elections expected in the fall, will offer new clarity about the balance of power among Iraq's parties, several of which have resorted to violence over the past few years in the pursuit of power.
The relationship between the central government and provincial authorities is also on the line, which has prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to create and fund "support councils" in provinces where his Dawa party does not have deep roots. Maliki also has become the public face of one list of candidates, converting the elections into a referendum on his rule.
And whereas Shiite parties joined a grand coalition in 2005, this time they are competing against one another in heavily Shiite southern provinces. Tribal leaders, meanwhile, are attempting to play the role of kingmaker in the south, as well as in other parts of the country.
Sunni Arabs, many of whom boycotted the 2005 elections, are widely expected to gain political ground around the country this year. In predominantly Sunni provinces, particularly Anbar, west of Baghdad, established religious parties are competing against secular ones, including some created by former insurgents who were thrust into leadership roles after the U.S. military put them on the payroll and enlisted them to fight the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In northern Iraq, particularly in Nineveh province, political tension is rising because the outcome of the vote is likely to shape a bitter and long-running disagreement between Kurds and Arabs over disputed areas along the southern border of the autonomous Kurdish region.
The campaigning has been marred by the killings of at least two candidates, as well as controversies over the role of women and the conduct of candidates on the campaign trail.
Female candidates in the southern port city of Basra and in Fallujah in Anbar province have drawn scorn for using their photographs on posters and in campaign literature.
Jaber Hussein Alwani, a tribal leader in Fallujah, said he was dismayed by the number of campaign posters promoting female candidates.
"We don't have a problem with women who want to be elected," he said. "But they don't have to publicize their photo. It's unacceptable. They can just publish their names."
Suha Jassim Mohammed, a candidate running for Anbar's provincial council, said she was unfazed by the uproar. The school principal has spent the past few weeks handing out glossy brochures with her photo. The country's recent violence, she said, has forced women into positions of prominence, in part because so many have become widows.
"Women are obliged to go out to work," she said. "Women want to participate in the election."
Women account for nearly 30 percent of the 14,431 candidates on the ballots. Under a quota system, parties that win multiple seats must appoint a woman for every three slots they fill in each council.
So far, none of the outbursts and controversies in the campaigns appears likely to derail the vote in any province.
Violence at four-year low
After Iraq's parliament passed the provincial election law last year, Iraqi and U.S. officials braced for a bloody political season. But the level of violence, which has declined steeply since the summer of 2007, has remained relatively steady and is at a four-year low.
Even so, many Iraqis have read political motives into recent attacks that did not target candidates. Maliki has accused those who have targeted the country's still-crippled infrastructure of trying to undermine his administration during the election season.
Iraqis speak about the power and promise of the ballot with a mix of optimism, apprehension and skepticism.
Ahmed Hussein, 25, of Fallujah, said he and his friends voted enthusiastically during the 2005 elections. This time, he said, he's not going to bother.
"I will not participate," he said, standing outside the clothing shop where he works. "When they put up posters, they each make themselves out to look like the best. When they're in office, they do nothing."
'They're all thieves'
Kahdoun Safi, 60, a political prisoner under the government of Saddam Hussein, said he, too, is underwhelmed by the way democracy has played out so far in Iraq.
"I will not vote for anyone," he said. "I don't trust any of them. They're all thieves."
Acknowledging the deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, Maliki and Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, recently issued statements urging Iraqis not to let their reservations about Iraqi politicians deter them from going to the polls.
Ali Khalderi, a television reporter who covered the recent town hall debate in Baghdad, was among the fiercest critics of the candidates. He suggested some were "less than educated" and called others liars.
And yet, he said, there's no doubt he will exercise his right to vote Jan. 31.
Democracy "is the only way of getting rid of dictators and violence," he said. "It will not end this election or next. It will take a whole generation."
Special correspondents Dalya Hassan, Qais Mizher and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.
More on Iraq