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Iraqi sheik struggles for votes

In the tribal meeting hall known as a , on the edge of a forest of irrigated date palms in southern Iraq, Sheik Adnan Aidani grasped a stack of leaflets touting his underdog campaign. He had printed 2,000 of them.
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In the tribal meeting hall known as a diwan, on the edge of a forest of irrigated date palms in southern Iraq, Sheik Adnan Aidani grasped a stack of leaflets touting his underdog campaign. He had printed 2,000 of them. On any day, he extols the virtues of voting for him to dozens of skeptical followers, as they sip tea under portraits of his ancestors who led the tribe. His six sons said they corral anyone they meet. Their plea: Choose our father's list.

Soon after, his mobile phone rang, a call from one of his 12,000 tribesmen.

"God salute you," Aidani bellowed. More banter followed, then the sheik got to the point.

"I'm on the list that's numbered 234. Don't forget it. The number is very simple -- 2, 3, 4."

"I'm counting on you and our friends," he added, an order that sounded more like an entreaty.

Afterward, Aidani looked up, a bit discouraged, and shrugged his shoulders.

"I can't guarantee everyone in the tribe will vote for me," the sheik said.

Aidani is a minority within Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, running on a small campaign list opposed by the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition that has the tacit endorsement of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most prominent religious leader.

In a region famed for its dates and poets, along the Shatt al Arab river that flows to the Persian Gulf, he confronts a constellation of forces that hold sway in Iraq's fiercely traditional countryside and that may prove decisive in Sunday's election for parliament.

Uphill might be too simple a word to describe Aidani's struggle; it is more like climbing a steep mountain. In this village, politics are reflected through a religious prism, and many people see the vote as a turning point in a centuries-long Shiite narrative of oppression and disinheritance.

More often than not, Sistani speaks for them, and the cacophony of posters of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the communists and the constitutional monarchists dwindle as the road stretches from Iraq's second-largest city of Basra to a countryside stitched by a lattice of canals and still scarred by memories of a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

While sentiments are by no means universal in this village, and Allawi enjoys a degree of admiration even in Yusufan, voters still mention the past before the present, the sacred before the worldly -- and the sheik is left on the outside looking in.

"Some people stick with the list of the sayyid," Aidani said, using an honorific for Sistani, as he sat under World War I-vintage rifles hanging on the wall and a family tree tracing his genealogy back 33 generations. "They won't listen to anything else."

"To them," he said, shaking his head, "it's only the sayyid."

'We have to participate'
The sheik is what goes for temporal authority in Yusufan, a warren of mud-brick and concrete huts bisected by a canal and laced together by dirt roads. Home to about 25,000 people, it lacks the bustle of Basra, a half-hour drive away. Sleek wood boats still ply canals, and children play marbles on the dirt banks of the Shatt al Arab, which joins the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The town's dense palm groves, withered by war and environmental degradation, produce one of the world's most famous varieties of dates, Al-Barhi.

Sheltered as it is, Yusufan is still suffused with the talk of Sunday's election, and the worry of what it might bring.

"People say we're going to cast our votes but we're going to die," said Raed Amir, who owns a small grocery store, its door adorned with portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of Iran's Islamic revolution, and Moqtada Sadr, the young Iraqi cleric and nemesis of the U.S. occupation. "I'm 90 percent sure there will be a bomb, with everyone there together."

In big cities like Basra and some neighborhoods in Baghdad, the degree to which people acknowledge the threat of violence is matched only by their determination to vote. It is no different in Yusufan. Nearly all of the men gathered around the store, built of mud, palm trunks and tin, nodded their heads yes when asked if they would walk the two miles or so to the school to cast their votes.

"We have to participate," said Amir, standing before a shelf lined with small packets of cardamom, pepper, sesame, shredded coconut and baking soda. "We don't want to feel regret in the future that we didn't participate."

A customer, Munir Ahmed, jumped in: "We wish the election was today, not tomorrow."

Along a wall across the street were the slogans that color the talk in the village's streets. One declared, "Yes, yes to Islam." Another voiced support for Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army. Next to it was a plea for God's mercy on the men killed in March 1991, when the Shiite rebellion began in Basra after the Gulf War and spread through southern Iraq.

In place of the election posters that clutter Baghdad and Basra were more religious slogans down the street. "No honor for Baathists and no honor for communists." Or, more bluntly: "All of Iraq proclaims that Islam is the glory of our country."

The slogans give voice to the sentiment at Amir's store and in the streets around it. The sheik may be a village leader, and he enjoys their respect, but to Amir and his customers, authority goes to those who speak in the name of religion.

"Three-quarters will vote for Sistani's list," Amir predicted. "As for the other quarter, I don't know what's in their hearts."

Sticking with tradition
Basra, with its centuries of urban culture, often looks down on its rural counterparts. The countryside is seen as steeped in the traditions of Shiite faith -- the stories of Ali, seen by Shiites as the successor of the Prophet Muhammad, and his sons Hussein and Abbas, who were killed in a 7th-century battle in Karbala. While secular and nationalist candidates wax optimistic about their chances Sunday in Basra, they lament that they will fare far worse in villages such as Yusufan, which taken together are more populous.

"They consider Imam Hussein and Abbas the first and the last," said Ahmed Khudheir, a Communist Party spokesman in Basra, sitting next to a painting of Lenin. "It's not a political process there, it's religious passion."

Conversations in Yusufan, though, tend to defy the stereotypes. In fact, Allawi, running as an incumbent, often generates praise, and at the very least respect. To some, he's seen as formidable, drawing on Iraqi admiration for toughness. Many view him as capable, relaxed, unburdened by the rhetoric of the past and unhindered by ties to Iran fostered by some Islamic groups. A few note that he sprinkles his language with Arabic from the south, in contrast to the heavy dialect of Tikrit spoken by ousted president Saddam Hussein.

Shahim, one villager said in describing him -- decent and noble.

"We're not looking for a Sunni or Shiite," said Ali Hussein Jaafar, 33, a day laborer. "We're looking for someone who is going to run the country." His hope: "I want him to arrest all the criminals in the country and get rid of them."

But like the sheik's, Allawi's writ runs only so far before running up against Sistani, who is known in Arabic as the marja.

"I salute Ayad Allawi," said Abdel-Wahhab Abdullah, 37, a farmer. "But I obey the marja."

Shiite Islam is distinguished by the authority wielded by its most established clerics, such as Sistani. The reclusive, white-bearded ayatollah is the first among equals in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and his edicts carry the force of law among the devout. He has yet to formally endorse the United Iraqi Alliance, but his portrait adorns its posters, and in written statements, he has "blessed" its candidates. His involvement has taken some by surprise -- Sistani, in his seventies, is known as a member of the quietist school, which seeks to keep politics out of religion -- and has angered opponents of the list, such as the sheik, who understands well the power Sistani's opinions carry in the countryside.

"We follow our marja," Abdullah said, near a patch of tomato plants. "We will choose the list he recommends."

Down the street was Khairallah Abboud, 41, a farmer and father of four. Hospitality is unquestioned here, and to a guest, he brought nuts, cookies and soft drinks. A picture of Imam Ali adorned his wall, draped in pink plastic flowers. Like Abdullah, Abboud spoke of Sistani in hushed, almost mystical tones. A word from Sistani, he insisted, "is like a constitution for us."

"Even Ayad Allawi takes advice from the marja. Even Ayad Allawi needs his support. The Americans, too," he said. "If Saddam had taken the advice of the marja, we wouldn't have ended up with all these crises."

For Abboud, obeying Sistani was no less important than taking part in the election: Both would empower the community.

"Under the previous regime, we were deprived. This list is going to support the oppressed," he said. "People will grasp their freedom. They will feel their humanity again, and they will feel Iraqi. For a long time, we have suffered by force."

Symbols of suffering
That narrative of suffering runs deep in Yusufan, both ancient and modern. In the village, it is a story of symbols.

While posters in Basra promise to end the smuggling of oil, build a democratic state, end corruption and bribes, or ensure justice, equality and dignity, the few posters in Yusufan, outside the village's sole mosque, tell another story.

One pictures mass graves in southern Iraq and victims of chemical weapons in the northern town of Halabja. "So that we don't repeat the tragedy," it reads, "vote for the list of the United Iraqi Alliance." Another urges support for the list because "it has gained the acceptance" of Sistani. Another symbol, one that's older: A poster to get out the vote quotes Sistani as arguing that a woman's participation in the election is like the role the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter Zeinab played in the battle of Karbala.

"Frankly speaking, we have suffered," said Kifah Mahmoud, a 45, a grocer. "We were destroyed in 1991."

Hardly a conversation about history in Yusufan passes without a mention of the 1991 rebellion. Convinced of U.S. support, the rebels seized cities and towns all the way to the approaches of Baghdad. That support never came, though, an unforgivable betrayal to many here. Hussein soon exacted his revenge, with his troops leveling historic swaths of Shiite towns, bombarding shrines in Najaf and Karbala and executing thousands on the spot. Perhaps as many as 100,000 were massacred in reprisal killings.

Mahmoud, a deserter, took part in the rebellion. When the army returned, he said, he fled -- first to Basra, then by car and foot up the Tigris to Nasiriyah, to Hilla and finally Baghdad. Months later, he said, he returned a fugitive, hiding in a room of a relative.

"Only God knows where I was," he said.

"If I stayed here," he added, "you would have found me in the mass graves by now."

In his store, named after Imam Ali's sword Dhu al-Fiqar, bags of sunflowers, peanuts, pistachios and watermelon seeds were stacked near crates of tomatoes, oranges and potatoes. Mahmoud stood nearby, smiling as he spoke.

"The Shiites have been waiting eagerly for this moment," he said, "the moment that we can seize our rights."

At the sheik's diwan, where a satellite receiver sat near long-necked Bedouin coffeepots, the campaign ground on.

Aidani's list, known as the Islamic Vanguard, is no less religious than Sistani's. One of its banners reads: "The constitution is the holy Koran." Unlike the United Iraqi Alliance, it boasts that it is "100 percent Shiite." Aidani sprinkled his conversations with Koranic passages, promised to represent the south and spoke darkly about the Iranian influence that many see behind the alliance list.

To guests, all of whom made a beeline to greet him first, he insisted that Sistani hadn't actually endorsed the alliance.

"It doesn't represent the Shiites, it doesn't represent Sayyid Sistani, and it doesn't represent the south," he told one. "Sayyid Sistani said he is not supporting any list. He said he blesses all the lists. Whomever you trust, you should vote for them."

Guests nodded, sharing a lavish meal of chicken, rice, pickled vegetables and dates, even if they were unconvinced.

And a while later, after the meal broke up, the 51-year-old sheik offered up his own pessimism.

"The people here listen blindly to the marja," he said. "The people think that by voting for this list, they are obeying God."

He dragged on a locally made Miami cigarette and finished the amply sweetened tea that traditionally follows lunch.

"The truth hasn't reached them yet," he said. "I'm the only one here who can tell the people in the area. It's a big village, and there's a lot of distance to cover." He shook his head. "You need at least two hours to change their mind."