BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi formally threw his hat in the ring yesterday for the nation's Jan. 30 election, announcing a slate of 240 candidates that is likely to become a key contender in the race.
But Allawi, who will head the slate, delayed his announcement by several hours yesterday and declined to release other names on his list. That raised speculation about last-minute haggling behind the scenes.
In particular, it was unclear whether interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer would join Allawi's list of candidates for the new national assembly or instead form his own slate.
Voters will chose between the lists, rather than select individual candidates. The elected assembly will be charged with appointing a new prime minister and drafting a permanent constitution.
Fears of violence
Allawi's much-anticipated announcement came on the first official day of campaigning, but major political parties said they expected to keep a low profile during the race because of Iraq's security problems.
Yesterday, a senior Shiite Muslim cleric in Karbala narrowly escaped assassination when a bomb exploded as he was traveling to evening prayers.
Sheik Abdul Mehdi Karbalai, a close associate of top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was wounded in a leg during the attack.
The blast killed seven people, including two of Karbalai's bodyguards, and wounded 39.
Al-Sistani has been a leading proponent of elections and helped craft a Shiite-dominated platform of candidates known as the United Iraqi Alliance. One of those candidates, Sayed Salem Yaqoubi, was assassinated Saturday in Baghdad, an official from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said yesterday.
Election officials fear that the violence will increase as the nation prepares to go to the polls next month.
Reports of threats
In Sunni Muslim cities, such as Ramadi and Samarra, candidates are too afraid to campaign, according to Alaa Makki, political adviser for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that is pushing for a delay in elections.
"Even the people who were distributing voter registration forms have been threatened," Makki said. "If we tried to campaign in Sunni areas, we might be killed."
He said the party had asked election officials not to release addresses of its candidates out of concern for their safety.
Makki said his party's candidates also are worried about the effect of U.S. forces on the campaign.
He said one member of the party's slate was recently arrested by the military based upon what he called false allegations levied by a rival. The man was released seven days later, he said.
"The situation is so unstable now," he said.
Most areas stable
Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in a briefing that there were indications many Sunnis want to take part in the vote.
"We just don't know how large that is or how much that will grow as we move toward January; nor do we know how effective the intimidation campaign will be as it continues," he said.
Smith said security problems were limited to only a few of Iraq's 18 provinces: "In 14 of those provinces we could probably have elections tomorrow."
At a news conference in Baghdad yesterday, Allawi said security and national unity would be top priorities of his slate, which he said would "stay far away from political and religious fundamentalism."
But without reviewing the specific names, rival political groups said it was hard to gauge how representative Allawi's slate, or platform, will be. The inclusion of Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who has said he might offer his own list, would be key, political experts said.
"That would give him a broader platform," said Saad Jawad, head of the political bureau for the Supreme Council, the leading Shiite party.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population and are expected to dominate the polls. Such an outcome worries some secular Shiites here, along with neighboring Sunni-dominated countries and the United States, which are wary of a Shiite-run Iraq growing closer to its eastern neighbor, Iran.
"Iran will not be indifferent to Iraq's future, and it cannot ignore the country because any developments there would have an impact on the internal affairs of Iran," Hasan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's top diplomat in Baghdad, told his country's official Islamic Republic News Agency.
In a move likely to inflame election tensions, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iran and Syria of cooperating with former security operatives of Saddam Hussein's regime and Iraq's top terror figure, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Iran, Shaalan said, is the "No. 1 enemy."
"They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq," the defense minister said.
Iran and Syria reject such claims.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.