NAJAF, Iraq — In Najaf, the heart of Shiite Muslim Iraq, pedestrians linger on the sidewalks of a busy bazaar, men smoke fruit-flavored shisha tobacco in cafes and a new first-class hotel with sparkling marble floors and dripping chandeliers is almost full. The battered capital of Baghdad seems much farther than 100 miles away.
Beneath this veneer of calm, however, an uneasy power struggle among southern Iraq's Shiite majority has emerged. In simple terms, the political battle can be understood in near opposites: nationalism vs. federalism, status quo vs. change, secularism vs. religion.
The Shiite parties that are vying for several hundred seats in Saturday's provincial elections are the State of Law coalition, affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his Dawa party, and its opponent, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Candidates from two party slates backed by the populist cleric Muqtada al Sadr also have entered the race.
The splintering among Shiite parties in this crucial vote points to the kind of Iraq — fractured, very likely — that U.S. troops could leave behind as they withdraw in the coming years.
"It will be a turning point in deciding the political map of Iraq," said Zuhair al Hakim, a spokesman for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
A few years ago, Najaf, one of the holiest sites for Shiites because of its gilded Imam Ali shrine, was the site of fierce battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces and militiamen from Sadr's Mahdi Army. For now, at least, the bloodletting has stopped.
Signs of the election season are everywhere. Candidate banners flap above the streets and posters paper storefront walls. Little boys toss campaign cards through open windows as cars idle in checkpoint traffic.
On Saturday, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq made a campaign stop at a soccer stadium, speaking to several thousand jubilant supporters. Shielded by a glass cage and flanked by dozens of armed guards, Abdul Aziz al Hakim urged voters to cast their ballots, pick competent candidates and pitch in to monitor the polls.
"We want to develop the public services," he said. "We want to change Najaf into an international city."
Founded by exiles in Iran in 1982, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has called for creating a semiautonomous region in the south, not unlike Kurdistan in the north. Such power would enable the party to seize control of the region's rich oil reserves and religious sites.
"Having regions and federalism will strengthen local economies, bring more job opportunities and protect the provinces from coups and dictatorships," Hakim said.
Najaf and surrounding areas long have been strongholds of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, but the State of Law coalition is proving to be a formidable opponent. Polls point to a rise in Maliki's popularity stemming from his administration's military clampdown on sectarian strife and the security forces agreement with the U.S. that he helped hammer out. That deal, which took effect Jan. 1, secured the transfer of power from American to Iraqi troops.
Maliki's party is pressing for a strong central government, as well as a more pragmatic approach to government. Now that security has improved, it maintains, Iraq can start building itself.
"We put the train on the rails, which is the most important thing," said Majeed Mustafa Zani, a leader in the State of Law coalition and a professor of Islamic economics. "Because this mission (of building Iraq) is so big, it takes more time."
Critics charge that Maliki shows signs of a strongman in the making. Besides setting up military forces that report directly to him, Maliki has established tribal councils in the south that help enforce security in neighborhoods. Maliki's opponents are angered further by the flood of government money to the councils, which are supporting his provincial candidates.
The prime minister said the tribal groups came from the Awakening Councils that were set up in Sunni Muslim areas of the country in 2006 in an effort to help U.S. troops combat al Qaida in Iraq.
The sheiks hold considerable sway among their tribes, and Maliki and others have sought their endorsements with visits, they said.
In an interview with about a dozen sheiks in Hira, a suburb of Najaf, the tribal leaders held back on openly endorsing any candidate or party. Read between the lines, however, and one can see who could receive their votes.
"Until now, we are satisfied with the work that Maliki has done, and when we met with him we told him we were satisfied," Sheik Muhammed Thaban al Shibl said.
A semiautonomous region in the south isn't welcome.
"I hate it. I consider it a division for the country," Falah al Janabi, an English teacher, told the sheiks. "If, God forbid, the federalism thing happens, Iraq will be so close to collapse."
Then there are the Sadrists, supporters of Sadr and his father, who was killed in 1999. They aren't seeking office as a political party, instead backing two slates of candidates whom they term "independent."
The Sadrist movement is pushing for an end to single-party control of the local councils.
In an hour-long interview at the movement's Najaf office — photos abound on the walls of father and son — the head of a political committee took precautions. Two assistants jotted down the conversation on notepads, a third videotaped it with a tiny digital camera.
"The main problem we have noticed is that there has been no progress in the
economy or education in the past four years," said Liwa Smeysin, the political committee official. "After four years we feel sick of their slogans."
Opponents of the Sadrist claim that the "independent" candidates are so in name only, something Smeysin disputes. Smeysin said that the office-seekers were selected because their agendas stressed the need for improving public services such as electricity and water.
Voters such as Kareem al Khirsan are livid at the direction that Iraq has taken since U.S.-led forces deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003 and promised to usher in a democratic era. What's transpired instead, he and others said, is a government tainted with corruption and patronage.
"I want to change the council government we have now," said Khirsan, 47, the owner of a cafe in Najaf's city center.
(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald.)
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