Religion Plays A Lesser Role In Iraq's Election Season

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Campaign posters in Baghdad i

An Iraqi policeman walks past campaign posters of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, of the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, and Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salim, left, of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, at night in Baghdad, Iraq, March 1, 2010. Iraqis head to the polls on March 7 for an important national election. Hadi Mizban/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hadi Mizban/AP
Campaign posters in Baghdad

An Iraqi policeman walks past campaign posters of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, of the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, and Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salim, left, of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition, at night in Baghdad, Iraq, March 1, 2010. Iraqis head to the polls on March 7 for an important national election.

Hadi Mizban/AP

Iraqis will vote Sunday in what many U.S. officials are calling the nation's most important election since the American-led invasion seven years ago. According to U.S. military officials, the success of the parliamentary election will directly affect the pace of the planned American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

As election day approaches, there is no clear favorite. But one trend is clear: Iraq's politicians seem to have decided that religion is not the best way to get elected.

The last time Iraqis went to nationwide polls four years ago, the country was sliding rapidly into a sectarian civil war. It wasn't surprising that voters flocked to the protection of their religious sect and elected a large number of Islamists.

Now, the wind is blowing in a different direction, according to the men playing cards on a recent day at a tea shop in the city of Baqubah, north of Baghdad.

Thaer Fulayeh Hassan, 44, who works at the local health ministry office, says that he doesn't believe in the Islamist parties and that they have failed repeatedly. Hassan says he is voting for Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister who leads a secular list of candidates for parliament.

Only God knows who will win, though, Hassan adds.

The disappointment with Islamist parties seems to have no relation to how religious a voter or candidate is. It simply appears that Iraqis have decided that clerics don't always do the best job at delivering security, electricity and clean water.

Juman Kubba is a candidate for parliament with a coalition that includes mostly religious Shiite parties. She is frank about the need for technocrats.

"I wouldn't say that people dislike [clerics] or hate them, but maybe they don't want them to be in these types of positions," she says.

Kubba says that even the Islamist parties have realized the trend, and they have selected new faces to run in the current election.

Their past campaigns seemed to suggest it was a religious duty to vote for the united Shiite ticket — but not this time. Iraq's most powerful religious figure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has made a point of telling people only that they should vote, but not for whom.

"Mr. Sistani issued recently that he's not endorsing any candidate — which is good, that will allow people to choose on their own," Kubba says. "I respect that position. I think it's a healthy thing to have."

The race even includes a prominent cleric running with his own strictly secular party.

Ayad Jamal al-Din studied at the world's most famous Shiite religious schools in Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom. The black turban he wears indicates that his family descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad. But Jamal al-Din says this doesn't mean he wants an Islamic state.

Iran and the theocracy there have hijacked the Shiite turban, he says, adding that he believes the vast majority — even among clerics — thinks that Iranian-style government has been a failure.

What people in Iraq want is very simple, he says.

"The Iraqi on the street wants security and services. [He] does not think of a secular or religious government, just services and security," Jamal al-Din says.

But the religious parties won't be dealt out completely from Iraq's elections.

Last Friday's prayer service in east Baghdad's Sadr City was fully attended, even as a chilly rain fell steadily on worshipers who knelt to pray in the muddy streets outside the mosque.

Friday prayers are our duty, and we'll follow our imams' orders through the rain and anything else, says Abu Sajad, a 40-year-old laborer. Of all the religious parties, the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have perhaps best retained their popularity with Iraq's millions of poor Shiites.

But the Sadr organization shook up its list of candidates with a primary several months ago, allowing for new faces to replace some of the figures more closely associated with the errors of the past. And it seems to have worked.

We will vote for candidates from Sadr City, Abu Sajad says, they are our brothers and sons.

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