BAGHDAD, Iraq — If any single image can capture Iraq's precarious position, suspended between dictatorship and democracy, it's the campaign posters that are pasted on towering concrete blast walls throughout Baghdad and in the provinces, reflecting the country's brutal past and its hopes for a different future.
A week before voters go to the polls to fill several hundred council seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, more than 14,400 candidates are jostling to make their pitches in an election that many Iraqis hope will distribute power more equitably. On campaign signs wallpapered throughout most of the country, office seekers are pledging to create jobs, stamp out violence and build a "modern" Iraq.
"The number of posters is extreme," said Mazin Fouad, 34, the owner of a bodega-style shop in central Baghdad. "You can see them here, there, everywhere."
The election Jan. 31 comes as Iraq struggles to take another step from dictatorship to something resembling democracy. U.S. officials hope that the provincial vote can be touted as free and fair, despite the fact that Iraqis themselves consider government figures corrupt and self-serving.
Iraq has held elections in recent years, but they weren't like these.
There were legislative elections in 2005, two years after U.S. troops invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein, but voters could choose only from "closed lists" of political parties instead of voting for individual candidates. Sunni Muslim Arabs boycotted the vote, which left them feeling marginalized.
This time, voters will be able pick parties and tick off numbers that correlate with the candidates of their choices. U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki isn't seeking office because the election is for provincial seats, but his face is on posters promising construction and — this may sound familiar — change.
"Using his image will push the voters to vote for us," said Sabah al Atwani, the campaign manager for the State of Law coalition, which is affiliated with Maliki and his Dawa party.
Atwani is one of those out on the campaign trail. Like any good party boss, he organizes meetings, ensures that his "volunteers" post campaign fliers and even bails them out of detention.
Atwani said that some of his party members recently were detained for gluing posters on blast walls near a police station in east Baghdad, which they were permitted to do — contrary, he said, to what the Iraqi Security Forces thought. Candidates are prohibited from using public facilities for their campaigns.
"The security forces were not educated about these things," Atwani said at the party headquarters in central Baghdad, the front gate manned by half a dozen camouflage-clad soldiers and a sandbag bunker. "They were then let go."
An Iraqi Security Forces spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.
Iraqi politics still has its risks, though. In mid-December, Atwani said, gunmen fired at State of Law party members as they put up posters on the eastern edge of Baghdad. Nobody was wounded.
While Iraqis joke that the blast walls offer more space for campaign posters, improving security is a popular pitch.
"Sectarianism is a crime against honor," reads one poster for a Sunni candidate with the Movement of the Sons of Two Rivers, a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates, which have nourished the land since prehistory. The signs, pasted in succession like an Andy Warhol print, appeared in a mixed-sect neighborhood in central Baghdad.
So far, election-related violence hasn't been as bad as many had feared. Only two candidates have been killed: a Shiite Muslim from Maliki's party in the southern province of Babil and a Sunni candidate in Mosul, a northern city where Arab-Kurdish tensions still run high.
There have been other campaign problems, however.
At a recent news conference in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified 5.6-square-mile government compound in the heart of Baghdad, officials said they'd documented 180 campaign violations by 69 parties and candidates, ranging from premature campaigning to putting up posters in undesignated areas. Election officials said they issued fines.
Then there's the mudslinging.
Al Sharqiya, an Iraqi satellite-television channel that's critical of the Shiite-led government, played on fears of sectarian violence, referring to posters on Palestine Street of certain candidates as a party of killers. The fliers that blanket the walls there belong to The Independent Free Men movement, which has been endorsed by leaders in the movement led by militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
As fast as posters are put up, opponents rip them down.
Given the almost daily roadside bombs, it makes sense that the campaign trail treads lightly on the streets and uses television to get into Iraqis' living rooms, assuming that voters have their own generators.
"When there is electricity, we sometimes watch the ads," said Haider Naji, 29, a magazine editor. "The candidates have spent a lot on these ads."
Religious symbols are banned from posters, but the ads still sport recognizable faces, imagery and slogans. With the unemployment rate as high as 60 percent, many ads employ a populist bent.
"With you, with you" is the slogan of the Shiite-affiliated Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. It's a reference to siding with the masses, the implication being that rival parties do not.
On a sleek-looking Web site for the Iraqi Accord Front, a major Sunni bloc in parliament, a singer solicits support from his listeners.
"The eyes of people sleep and we keep vigilant," he sings above a snappy beat and a party name chorus. "With you, injustice will not befall us."
The reach of the political parties is evident in other ways, too.
A suit-wearing security officer affiliated with the Badr Organization, the Iranian-backed armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, scolded reporters Thursday for interviewing motorists about their views on candidates' campaign efforts. The neighborhood, he said, was "presidential" and therefore off-limits to the news media. After 10 minutes of back-and-forth and a threatened cell phone call to his superior, the officer relented.
Many Iraqis say they're wary of elections, believing they do little but allow politicians to deepen their pockets. Often in the same breath, however, they say that they want not just improved security, but also basic services such as electricity.
"We want more services, not just sidewalks," said Ahmed Abbas al Alaq, 29, a linguist.
As for the campaigning, voters say the ubiquitous ads are hard to ignore. They also wonder whether the money spent on them could be better used.
"If they spent this money on orphans or widows, we would be better off," said Fouad, the shop owner. "Wouldn't it be more useful to take care of these families in need?"
(Daniel reports for The Miami Herald.)
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