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In Shiite-dominated Najaf, spirited campaigning is in full swing

NAJAF, Iraq—In a country where many political candidates are afraid to be seen in public and their supporters wear masks when they put up campaign posters, Najaf is something else.

Cars plastered with plastic flowers and placards snaked through the streets on Thursday, their horns and the loudspeakers on their roofs blaring. New posters went up on this, the last day of campaigning before Sunday's National Assembly elections. Crowds gathered at party headquarters and polling places had something like the fresh optimism of schools preparing to open.

What makes Najaf different is that, of all of Iraq, it stands to gain most from the Jan. 30 election. Majority Shiites are expected to win the biggest share of the national assembly's 275 seats, and the city is home to both a major Shiite Muslim shrine and many of the sect's most influential leaders.

A Shiite victory, Najaf's residents know, could make the city a center of government as well as enhance its standing as a religious center.

Among the celebrant campaigners was Fathal Awed, an older brown-suited man with a white goatee, who'd decked out his 1991 black Mitsubishi Galant with posters of Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

The idea "was totally spontaneous," Awed said. "I drive around with this car all the time."

He and a cortege of other Allawi supporters had pulled up before the Najaf headquarters of Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord. Some had ribbons on their car's hoods, others flowers. All bore at least four Allawi posters, most showing him giving a speech. Under way, they looked and sounded like an Iraqi wedding party.

Allawi's slate, the Iraqi List, is vying with the United Iraqi Alliance, a list blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential of Shiite clerics, for Najaf's support. Allawi's List is considered secular while religious doctrine drives the United Iraqi Alliance. Polls indicate that most residents will back the Alliance, though many say Allawi's Accord promotes a more nationalistic state.

Awed and about 10 other men did a chanting, jeering drive-by of the Alliance's offices, yelling bullhorn-amplified Allawi slogans. Accord candidates, security guards and supporters smirked back, most happily when Allawi supporters threw fliers and candy onto the street and drew only children.

Alliance supporters also cruised the city in heavily decorated cars. Instead of posters of a speechifying candidate who looked like a politician, their posters featured the Alliance's lead candidate, Abdel Aziz Hakim, flanked by his now-deceased father and grandfather, leaders of Iraqi's Shiite community. On the antennas were green flags, a Shiite symbol.

"We are trying to join politics and religion," said Asaad al Taee, the Alliance's top candidate for the Najaf provincial race. "As a general policy, the main goal is to achieve election as a way toward democracy. If the people want an Islamic government, that is all right with me."

Najaf province will have 235 polling centers, said Busha al Zamily, the head of its electoral commission. The commission has begun posting signs telling voters where the polling centers will be, which has not happened in much of Iraq due to security concerns.

Still scurrying about in the commission office at 10 p.m. was Ali Kadhim, 26, a civil engineer who's been working on the election since the office opened in October. He said the election is the only way to liberate his country from occupation.

"I have faith in the work I am doing. It's an honest, decent job," Kadhim said. "And each decent job requires sacrifices."

Even in Najaf, security concerns were never far from the excitement. As Awed and his colleagues drove around the city, police drove behind them. Guards and police cars protected Kadhim's office, and he conceded that he might have endangered himself by telling friends that he works for the commission.

Police, who assure voters that the election centers will be safe, have increased their street presence. So have U.S. troops, who usually try to stay in the background.

Shop owner Bassem Hassan Hameed, who sells everything from blankets to electronics, said that he knew that political violence could cost him his life.

He was willing to pay that price, he said, because Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has called for residents to vote.

"Even if anything happens and we die, it's a good thing for a human to die in the obedience of God," Hameed said.


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)


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