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Iraq's secular parties unite in effort to prevent religious government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Six of Iraq's secular political parties met Thursday to cement a new alliance aimed at preventing a religious government from coming to power in Iraq, as it did in neighboring Iran.

So far, the Iraqis who've turned out by the thousands to demand a general election carry placards of their favorite clerics and posters with religious slogans. The religious fervor surrounding Iraq's political future has disheartened secular politicians, who fear that the clerics' growing influence will usher in an Islamic agenda, leave them powerless and dash hopes of making Iraq a model for Middle Eastern democracy.

The six parties, all but one represented on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, have joined forces to offer an alternative voice to that of the country's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, whose demand for direct elections has stalled the drafting of a constitution, divided the Governing Council, and threatened U.S.-backed plans for a caucus system to decide who rules Iraq after this summer's transition of authority.

The umbrella group, whose Arabic name roughly translates as the "Consortium of Democratic Forces," met for the second time Thursday, with representatives from the two main Kurdish factions, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Arab Socialist Movement and two other secular democratic parties. It's impossible to gauge the parties' appeal in the absence of elections.

However, in a poll last August by Zogby International in four Iraqi cities, 49 percent of Iraqis said they preferred a democracy guided by Islamic law, 24 percent wanted an Islamic state dominated by clerics and only 21 percent desired a secular democratic state. The poll of 600 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

The group is putting the finishing touches on a draft of a constitution that seeks a secular society, checks and balances for governmental branches and "respect for the Islamic identity of Iraq without making Islam the only resource for the judiciary," according to members familiar with the document. The consortium hopes to present the draft to the Governing Council within the next few weeks.

Secular parties in and out of the consortium say they are reaching out to voters by opening offices in predominantly Shiite Muslim cities, hosting parties for neighborhood children, inviting the elderly for chess matches and organizing community forums and sports leagues. None of those efforts, however, poses a serious threat to clerics whose spirited sermons can send Iraqis to the streets en masse. Faced with Islam's powerful rallying force, even the staunchest secularists concede their fight sounds futile in current conditions.

"We understand that when you are jobless, desperate, isolated and terrorized, it's natural that you turn to God to save you," said Shakir al Dujaily, who represents the Communist Party in the consortium. "The social and political backwardness is so deep in our society that it's not easy to talk about democracy in a secular way. We are going after the nonactive people who would like to see the democratic trend stronger and united."

One secular Governing Council member is so downcast over the issue that she advocates the return of the monarchy that ended when King Faisal II was assassinated in a military coup in 1958.

Politicians and community groups that stand by their secular message are increasingly the targets of attacks. Last week, a bomb apparently intended to explode during a meeting of about 30 Communist Party members detonated just after the gathering. Two members who were cleaning the hall were killed and a third was injured. Party members said they suspected Islamists who wanted to silence their calls for a secular government.

The secretary general of the Iraqi Women's League, which supports a secular government and vehemently opposed a recent Governing Council resolution that would roll back women's rights and bolster Islamic law, was briefly kidnapped Tuesday in another apparent incident of intimidation by religious extremists.

That morning, Samira Hussein received a note that read: "Your turn is coming." Later that day, she said, she hailed a taxi at the same time and place she waits every day. The taxi driver locked the doors, drove her several blocks and asked whether she had received the note, written in red ink. She said she stayed calm and the man soon released her, with a final warning to stay out of politics.

"Of course it worried me," Hussein said Thursday, sitting in the Women's League office with her young daughter and a single guard outside. "But Iraqis are fed up with following one person, one ideology. We're fed up with these pictures of religious men everywhere. We won't stop asking them to stop exploiting the political ignorance of Iraqis for their own personal gain."

The reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani has proved to be the only figure capable of turning out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in favor of general elections. His persistent demands led to the announcement this week that the United Nations will send a delegation to Iraq to study whether the country's explosive security situation and fledgling political apparatus can support elections by this summer.

Even if the United Nations gives the green light for elections, there's no guarantee that voters would choose an Iranian-style Shiite theocracy if given the option. The country has a sizable Sunni Muslim population and ethnic minorities of varying political backgrounds. The wild card could be the country's largely silent secular voting bloc, said Mahde al Bayaa, the head of the public opinion department for the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies.

"Generally, we are seeing widespread support of the Islamists, especially in the (Shiite-dominated) south," Bayaa said. "We are hoping that the people who are thinking along sectarian lines now will one day raise banners that say, `Iraq first and last.'"

Other optimists among Iraq's secular elite agree that Sistani draws his power mostly from disenfranchised Shiites, whose fiery blend of Islam and politics was banned under Saddam Hussein's regime. Once the novelty of open worship wears off, Iraqis gradually will return to the nation's secular tradition, said Intifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, whose political movement, the Iraqi National Congress, isn't part of the new consortium.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SISTANI

Iraq

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