With violence looming, Basra is ready for today

BASRA, IRAQ — BASRA, Iraq - The ballot boxes have arrived. The polling stations are being prepared with coils of barbed wire and concrete blocks to deter attacks.

And despite concerns insurgents will reach deep into the Shiite-dominated south to disrupt today's voting, election fever is building around a vote that Iraq's Shiite majority hopes will end centuries of political marginalization.


Far from the violence and intimidation that threaten to undermine the integrity of the election in the Sunni heartland, the mostly Shiite citizens of the south view this election as a chance to shape their destiny for the first time.

"This will be the most important moment of my life," said Salem Taqih, who spent 10 years in prison in Basra for organizing opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime and now heads an association representing former political prisoners.


"With this election, we will make sure that the misery of our people will never be repeated again."

Taqih is a supporter of the Islamic Dawa Party, one of the once-outlawed Shiite opposition parties hoping to move to the center stage of Iraqi politics.

Dawa is one of the main Shiite parties grouped under the auspices of revered Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose implicit endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance, as the coalition is known, is expected to give it a huge boost at the polls.

Al-Sistani isn't a candidate, and he has traditionally avoided politics. It is a reflection of the importance of this vote for Iraqi Shiites, his followers say, that he has stepped into the political fray for this election. He has allowed his portrait to be used to promote the United Iraqi Alliance's campaign and issued a fatwa, a religious order, declaring it "the religious duty" of every Shiite to vote.

The alliance's election posters, featuring a burning candle, the stern face of the white-bearded al-Sistani and the coalition's number on the ballot, 169, dominate across the south. They are plastered on the walls of government buildings, police stations and the schools that will serve as polling stations.

"You have to vote for 169, otherwise God will be angry," said one leaflet being distributed by the alliance in Basra.

Secular parties attempting to compete against the deluge of religious imagery say they are disadvantaged by what they regard as an unfair exploitation of the reverence in which al-Sistani is held by most Shiites.

"The Shiite parties will win because they are using religion to persuade simple, ill-educated people," said Ahmed Khubair, the deputy secretary of Iraq's Communist Party in Basra. "They will vote for Shiite parties because al-Sistani said they must."


The strategy may backfire; not all of Iraq's 15 million Shiites want their new government to have religious overtones, and there are indications that a large number of Shiites may cast ballots for secular parties.

There are also deep divisions within the Shiite coalition. Leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the coalition's main party, spent much of the Hussein era in exile in Iran, and many Shiites suspect the group maintains close ties to Iran. Followers of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led a bloody revolt against U.S. forces last year, are threatening to boycott the vote, in part because of bitter rivalries with the Supreme Council.

The rifts help explain why al-Sistani sought to group all Shiite parties under a single umbrella.

"They worried that the Shia vote would be split among a bunch of smaller groups and therefore sort of be frittered away and that the secularists and the Kurds and others would figure out a way to beat them," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So their response to that was, 'Then, we must unify.'"

Al-Sistani's anxieties are deeply rooted. In the 1920s, Shiites squandered the opportunity to play a leading role in the democracy the British attempted to establish. They staged an armed rebellion and boycotted the first election held under British rule. Sunni leaders were left to negotiate a powerful position of dominance, one that persisted through Hussein's rule.

Although Iraqis of all persuasions were persecuted, Shiites suffered disproportionately at the hands of Hussein's Sunni-dominated and avowedly secular regime. Their rituals and festivals were banned, their clerical leaders were imprisoned and executed, and their cities and towns were neglected by a government that preferred to spend Iraq's oil wealth on its relatives and supporters.


Yet even those Shiites who don't support the alliance say they are enthusiastic about voting, not for the chance to assert Shiite rights or win political advantage, but because they believe democracy will help stabilize a country long racked by ethnic, political and religious divisions.

"This election will allow all Iraqis to have representation. There won't be one group dominating all the others," said Kareema al Assadi, who runs a women's rights organization in Basra. "And if we make a mistake, we can correct things next time."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.