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Buildup to elections reaches battle-scarred Fallujah

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Fallujah is scarred by battle and brimming with anger, yet signs emerged Friday that the feverish buildup to Sunday's parliamentary elections had reached the chief battleground of Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgency.

Campaign workers braved insurgents' bullets and derision from their neighbors to hang posters of Sunni candidates. Some townsfolk sent messengers to outlying villages for ration cards, which they must have to receive ballots.

It's still too dangerous for election officials to get out the vote here, so American soldiers in Humvees took to the streets Friday with loudspeakers and a message in Arabic:

"Participating in the election is the way for you to stop the violence in Iraq and to build a better future for your children."

Nobody expects much voter turnout in Fallujah, where hundreds of homes are flattened and basic services remain scarce after a U.S.-led battle reclaimed control of the city from Sunni insurgents in November. Only a fraction of Fallujah's 300,000 residents have returned, and there's still sporadic fighting along with insurgent threats against voters. Still, some residents and election officials said, Fallujah could surprise once again.

Only two polling places will open Sunday in all of Fallujah. The Iraqi Electoral Commission has 68 employees here, all said to be working in heavily fortified offices and without using their real names. Despite the threat, there are subtle signs that the commission's message is getting out, said Hashim al Hassani, Iraq's interim industry minister and the chairman of a committee to help displaced Fallujah residents.

"Fallujah suffered mass destruction, and people aren't comfortably settled enough to show a real interest in politics," al Hassani said. "We hope they participate. We've heard maybe 5 percent will vote, but they might surprise us."

Mohammed Ghazi, 29, is well known in town as a soccer player for Fallujah's most popular team. He returned to the city this month to find that the club where he used to practice was being used as a distribution site for humanitarian aid.

All week, he's weighed whether voting would help his downtrodden hometown. He decided Friday, and recruited a friend to help him get a registration form.

"I'm not convinced of the candidates, but I asked myself what harm was there in participating?" Ghazi said. "Is it wrong to give your vote? Is it something you deserve to die for?"

Fallujah residents who said they'd vote offered different reasons. Rumor has it that American soldiers will pay residents who show up at polling places. Some said they'd vote as a stand against the insurgents who used to rule Fallujah, whom many blame for the destruction.

Especially reviled is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who leads an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist network in Iraq. In a new Internet posting Friday, al-Zarqawi's group called polling sites "centers of atheism and vice" and warned voters that "you only have yourselves to blame" for harm on election day.

Muneer Salman, a 39-year-old factory worker whose home was burned down in the November battle, walked the streets of Fallujah on Friday in search of precious gasoline. Along the way, he cursed al-Zarqawi and said voting was a way to get even with the militant, who has a $25 million price on his head from the United States.

"Zarqawi isn't worth what I paid for my shoes," Salman said, angrily pointing at his black loafers. "Is it legal to kill people for participating in an election? What happened to our families and our homes isn't enough for him? I swear by God if a voting center is close to my house, I'll go."

Another reason Fallujah residents might be persuaded to go to the polls is largely unspoken: They fear an Iranian-style government headed by their traditional rivals, Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

Unlike in Shiite mosques, where the religious leaders stump for their favorite candidates, the word "elections" was never mentioned in Friday sermons in Fallujah. However, there were veiled references to Shiite rule and the expected clobbering of Sunni candidates at the polls.

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(This story was reported from Fallujah by a Knight Ridder special correspondent who isn't named for security reasons. It was written in Baghdad by Hannah Allam.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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