Under the stewardship of the country's most powerful religious figure, Iraq's fractured Shiite Muslim majority has closed ranks and produced a unified list of candidates for the parliamentary elections set for Jan. 30.
The United Iraqi Alliance, organized under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has brought together mainstream Shiite religious parties allied with the interim government and a junior cleric who until two months ago was committed to armed rebellion, recasting the politics of Iraq's majority population.
The names of the 240 candidates will be released later this week, said Hussein Shahristani, the nuclear scientist charged by Sistani with organizing the list. But the slate of candidates immediately assumes center stage in an electoral process widely anticipated by Iraq's Shiite population, which has embraced the prospect of gaining power at the ballot box after decades of oppression by the government of Saddam Hussein, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims.
The nationwide election will choose a 275-member National Assembly, which in turn will name a new government and appoint the body that writes Iraq's new constitution. Voters will be asked to select an entire slate, and seats in the National Assembly will be distributed proportionate to each slate's share of the total vote.
List bears Sistani's mark
The United Iraqi Alliance's slate underscores the risks of identity politics in the country. Though it pointedly includes candidates from the country's minority Sunni Arab sect and ethnic Kurdish and Turkmen populations, its overarching Shiite cast — more than two-thirds of the candidates are Shiite — reinforces sectarian differences in Iraq, which is divided even on whether elections should go forward as scheduled.
Sunni religious leaders have called for a boycott of the January ballot, and elements of a violent, overwhelmingly Sunni insurgency have warned voters against taking part.
"We consider that this alliance has really made an historic impact on Iraqi society," said Shahristani, 62, who was imprisoned for 12 years by the Hussein government. "This is a historic moment for the birth of a new, democratic and just Iraq."
The 240 names on the United Iraqi Alliance list are drawn from a mix of parties. Independent candidates will account for half of the slate.
The candidates highest on the list, who would be the first to receive seats, will clearly distinguish the slate as Sistani's, Shahristani said.
"People looking at the first few names will immediately recognize that these are people acceptable to him," said Shahristani, who will be among the candidates.
Thirty of the candidates were drawn from followers of Moqtada Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric whose militia battled U.S. forces for more than six months earlier this year.
Sadr, though a junior cleric, is from a family of renowned Shiite clerics. Neither he nor his senior aides will stand as candidates, Sadr officials said. But the inclusion of his movement on the slate does much to prevent a splintering of the Shiite vote.
Sadr's followers, including those in the Mahdi Army militia, emerged as the most formidable manifestation of street politics in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion, channeling the energies of the disenfranchised urban poor across the country's largely Shiite south and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for Sadr's father.
"We hope that they will be more and more engaged in the political process," Shahristani said of the younger Sadr's followers. "We are keen to cooperate with them and help them make that transition into parliament rather than working in the streets."
Another 25 candidates were drawn from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exile party based in Iran since the 1980s and a participant in the interim government.
Twenty candidates will come from another religious party, Dawa, which also takes part in the government; its leader, Ibrahim Jafari, is one of two interim vice presidents.
The slate includes candidates from the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi, the onetime Pentagon favorite who fell from grace this year after allegations that he had spied for Iran.
Slots are also held for the Fadhila group loyal to Mohammed Yaacoubi, a cleric with a following in Basra; a group from Iraq's Turkish-speaking Turkmen minority; and a party representing Shiite Kurds.
Most Kurds are Sunnis, and the community's two main political parties have announced their intention to draft a separate slate that will probably command most of the votes in the Kurdish-dominated north.
Shahristani said the United Iraqi Alliance list will include independents from the northern city of Mosul, with its large Sunni Arab population, plus Sunni tribal representatives. Among them are the Shamar, one of the most powerful tribes in Iraq.
"We tried to include as many groups from various communities as possible," Shahristani said. "Everybody is happy with their share of the cake."
Questions surround Sunni intentions
The Sunni vote remains the starkest question mark in Iraq. Sunnis benefited disproportionately under Hussein and since the invasion have accounted for most of the insurgents attacking U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
"These are not Sunnis," the country's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, said of the insurgents during a White House visit on Monday. "These are a mix of people who have one thing in common: hatred to the Iraqi society and hatred to democracy, people who are trying to stop us from having our first elections."
Yawar, a Shamar sheik, is also forming a political party. Like the United Iraqi Alliance, his group is cast as nationalist rather than factional in appeal.
But among Iraq's Shiite population, the election is widely viewed as a long overdue opportunity, especially given the hierarchical nature of Shiite society and Sistani's place at its apex.
"Whatever Sayyid Sistani says, I should obey his orders," said Jamal Mohammed, 46, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the prophet Muhammad. "Participation in voting is an act of Islamic unity in the face of the occupiers. We're fighting the occupation by going to the ballot box."
He spoke in a Shiite community center adorned with posters bidding "Your vote guarantees our security."
"If Sayyid Sistani says die, then we will die," said Hussein Murtadha, 40. "We know that his vision is better than our vision."