Violence Ramps Up During Iraqi Election Season

Iraq is in the midst of an election season already marred by acts of intimidation. Everything from deadly shootings and bombings, to posters being ripped down and defaced. This election season is filled with less spectacular acts of intimidation than previous campaigns, but they are still having an effect.

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A suicide car bomber killed at least 11 people in the city of Ramadi yesterday as Iraq is preparing for parliamentary elections on March 7th. The campaigning has been marred by attempted assassinations, arrests and bombings of political party headquarters; campaign posters are being torn down or defaced.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In recent days in the northern city of Mosul, Christians have come under attack; at least four have been killed and many others threatened. It has caused an exodus from the city, according to local priests interviewed by NPR.

Louis Merkes(ph) is a Christian member of a local counsel where the persecuted Christians are fleeing to. Reached by telephone in his hometown of Hamdaniya, he said there is no doubt the violence is related to the upcoming vote.

Mr. LOUIS MERKES: (Through translator) In every election we are subjected to the same scenario of killing, repression, displacement and marginalization. The aim is to sideline and prevent the Christians from voting and electing their true representatives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Mosul, Christians are seen as a crucial swing vote in the upcoming political battle between Arabs and Kurds over control of that city. But they're not the only ones facing violence this election season. All over Iraq, rival political factions are involved in a campaign of dirty tricks.

(Soundbite of overlapping voices)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheikh Batham al-Fawati(ph) lies in his bed while well-wishers come to greet him. He was shot three times in his leg. He says he was lucky.

Sheikh BATHAM AL-FAWATI: (Through translator) Two young people knocked at the door claiming to have religious questions. When I opened the door, they started shooting, then ran away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he doesn't know who was behind the attack but he believes the aim was political because he's linked to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's party. Equally murky was a series of bombings this week in Baghdad outside the headquarters of four different political groups that are contesting the elections.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the office of the Labor and National Salvation Alliance, workmen are putting the place back in order after a bombing last Monday. Party candidate Hussein Nassir al-Hasnawi(ph) says it was an act of intimidation.

Mr. HUSSEIN NASSIR AL-HASNAWI: (Through translator) They are targeting our list but we will continue the campaign. We are cleaning up the blood that was shed here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hasnawi says he expects more attacks.

Mr. AL-HASNAWI: (Through translator) I do expect it, unfortunately. It seems that Iraq's democracy won't be built without bloodshed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In several districts of Baghdad this week, campaign posters of Prime Minister Maliki were torn down or defaced. A new political party called A'Rar(ph) claims its campaign workers have been shot at, kidnapped and even murdered for the, quote, "crime of putting up election posters."

Iraqi and international analysts say political groups in power are trying to remove their opponents by other means as well. Already over 500 candidates have been banned from running in the elections for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Ba'ath Party.

The alleged resurgence of the Ba'ath is an issue that is being played up big in Shiite areas by Shiite parties.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Al-Furat TV station is funded by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the largest Shiite groups here.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This spot features music that could well have come from the soundtrack of the movie "The Omen," with archival footage of men being beaten and tortured during Saddam's rule. It's a not-so-subtle scare tactic that is meant to rally Shiites around a sectarian banner.

One of the main parties targeted in the Ba'athist purge is the non-sectarian Irat Keilist(ph) of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. One the parties leading members was among those banned from the vote. Earlier this month, the party chief in Diyala province, Najama Harbi(ph), was arrested by the security services and hasn't been heard from or seen since.

At the party headquarters in Diyala, Hussam al-Oubaidi(ph) alleges that most of the security services in the province are dominated by Shiites who are doing the bidding of the ruling parties.

Mr. HUSSAM AL-OUBAIDI: (Through translator) We wanted to hold a peaceful demonstration to draw attention to our detained candidate, but we were not allowed by the security services. Is this the democracy America brought?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oubaidi says party members fear for their arrests, but he insists with these elections change is coming to Iraq.

Mr. AL-OUBAIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when it does, he says, those who were behind this will be questioned. There will be, he says, a judgment day.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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