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Campaign styles emerge in Iraqi vote

Voters basically have two choices in the Iraqi election: Will the country grow more religiously conservative or will secular coalitions be able to win big enough?
Image: Election campaign in Baghdad
Supporters of former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, head of the secular Iraqiya wave flags at an election campaign rally on Thursday in Baghdad. Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Scenes from an election that will determine who will lead the country as U.S. forces go home.

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."