Thu, Jan 06, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Iraqis start campaigning

LOCAL HERO The safest place to campaign for this month's national elections in Iraq is the grim Shiite area Sadr City, but only if you back Muqtada al-Sadr


With all the pluck and pleasure of a natural politician, he sprang from his car and glad-handed the gathering throng. He led the children in a raucous chant and then delivered a timeless political appeal.

"You need to elect someone from your own city, someone who understands your problems," the candidate shouted. "You need someone who suffered the way you did."

The candidate, Fatah al-Sheik, 37, is the leader of a newly formed slate that is competing in the national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. But what is unusual is that he and his running mates are all from the vast, impoverished Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad called Sadr City, and all are acolytes of Muqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric whose stern visage glares down from nearly every wall.

Perhaps most surprising, however, was Sheik's ability to campaign at all on the mean streets of Baghdad; that, and his ticket's pledge of fealty to a cleric who is, officially at least, ignoring the elections.

With most of Baghdad plagued by car bombs and gunfire, few candidates are likely to be mingling with crowds in the coming weeks. Only a few months back, Sadr City in particular was the scene of raging combat between US troops and al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

But now, for local residents anyway, Sadr City may be one of the few places where press-the-flesh stumping is thinkable. Its ethnic insularity protects it from troublemaking strangers, and residents have largely heeded al-Sadr's call, as fighting ended in the fall, to halt attacks.

Still, the emergence of this openly pro-Sadr ticket led by Sheik, who is the editor of a newspaper called Sadr Rising and has close ties to the cleric, might seem puzzling on its face.

Al-Sadr is not taking part in the elections, and at least one of his close aides has called for a boycott.

But he clearly represents a significant constituency, mainly younger, disaffected Shiites, and people who have been watching the campaign here say he is hedging his bets.

He quietly approved the inclusion of about 20 supporters, insiders say, on the mainstream Shiite religious ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance, which has the implicit backing of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and is expected to be the major winner in the elections.

At the same time, al-Sadr has permitted this more open campaign by Sheik, who last fall served as a press officer to the Sadr militia as it battled US troops in Najaf and Sadr City.

Other politicians say that Al-Sadr has cleverly left his aims ambiguous.

"Muqtada is keeping his options open," said Ghassan al-Atiyah, a Shiite who returned from exile last year and leads a secular, ethnically mixed election slate.

If the elections and resulting institutions take hold, al-Sadr will have sway from within; if his followers do poorly or things fall apart, he can say he was not involved.

Sheik is careful to emphasize that he is not officially representing al-Sadr -- only that he and the other candidates on the ticket are all deep believers in the cleric and the ideals of his famous father, who was killed in 1999 during Saddam Hussein's regime.

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