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Insurgents are targeting Iraqi candidates in next month's parliamentary elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—With their names and faces plastered on campaign posters, the hundreds of candidates in Iraq's parliamentary elections next month are a new batch of targets for insurgents bent on sabotaging the country's political process.

Campaign season officially begins Wednesday, but candidates already are finding out that name recognition attracts assassins as well as potential voters.

Gunmen killed three members of a Shiite Muslim political party last Wednesday night, the day after one of them announced his candidacy. On a busy Baghdad street where a car bomb recently exploded, rows of posters encouraging Iraqis to vote have been ripped down or splattered with black paint.

The countdown to the vote Jan. 30 is expected to bring more assaults on candidates and election workers. If police and national guardsmen wear masks to conceal their identities from attackers, many candidates asked, what hope is there for politicians, whose chances of winning depend on their ability to become well-known to the public?

"Some groups have been complaining that they haven't been able to prepare themselves or they would not be able to campaign properly in those (dangerous) areas," said Hussain al-Shahristani, a nuclear physicist who's part of a ticket made up of the dominant Shiite factions. "Logistically, it's not practical for them to go to the different villages and present themselves to the people."

Despite the threat, politicians are clamoring for the chance to sway Iraq's future. About 250 parties have registered to be on the ballot in the country's first democratic election in decades. Voters will choose a 275-member national assembly that will draft a new constitution and help organize elections to select a permanent government by the end of next year.

Most candidates are taking precautions. For example, one major sectarian party operates out of a nondescript building hung with a decoy sign that reads "computer school." Some politicians leave their names off posters or curtail public appearances.

Naseer Kamel Chadderji, one of the few Sunni Muslim politicians registered as a candidate, said security-related campaign restrictions almost certainly would prevent lesser-known candidates from a fair shot in the elections. Shiite candidates representing Iraq's religious majority stand ready to sweep the elections, while many prominent Sunni factions have urged a delay or boycott until security improves.

If Sunnis are disenfranchised, the results could be viewed as illegitimate.

"How could we go to cafes or public squares to meet people? We can't travel to other provinces, such as Kurdistan, Mosul or the southern areas, because the roads aren't safe," Chadderji said. "If someone is not in a major political party and doesn't have a militia, he can't protect himself. The government can't protect him."

Senior officials from the Gathering for Iraq party discussed the issue over the weekend at their campaign headquarters, where workers had painted massive sandbag barricades to resemble Iraqi flags. Armed guards stood watch from behind the festive-looking barriers.

Inside, members worried about more than their political survival as a secular party in a race dominated by more powerful clerics turned candidates. The group's 200 or so hopefuls must offer a platform that's bold enough to inspire voters, but innocuous enough not to provoke guerrillas.

"We've declared our names and our projects, and we just hope we won't be in danger because we are not extremists," said Hameed al-Rubaiye, the party's election coordinator. "Anyone who seeks leadership here should consider that he will face great risk, but that doesn't stop our determination."

Still, the security threat is never far from anyone's mind. A visitor asked one elderly, frail-looking party member his role in the campaign.

"Bodyguard!" cracked a friend, as other members laughed.

The mood was more somber at the headquarters of the Shiite political party Hezbollah (meaning "the Party of God"), which isn't affiliated with the Lebanese militant movement of the same name. The candidate who was gunned down last week in his home, along with two friends, was from Hezbollah.

Like many small groups, Hezbollah officials had no sign advertising their presence and flew no traditional black banners in memory of slain candidate Sattar Jabbar.

Electricity was out again Monday, so Hezbollah's campaign workers toiled in the darkness. A small generator provided light only for the office of the party's secretary general, Hassan al-Sari. With sadness, al-Sari recounted how the assassins crept into the area at nightfall, blocked roads, stormed Jabbar's house and shot everyone inside. The previous day, Jabbar had received a threat to withdraw his name from the ballot.

"Sattar became the martyr of elections, because he's the first person to lose his life just for participating in a process that deserves all our sacrifices," al Sari said. "We're expecting a lot more difficulties and obstacles—from the lack of gasoline to terrorist threats. But we're fully determined to participate in elections, whatever it takes."


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this article.)


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