Iraq Prepares for Assembly Elections

Campaigning is about to begin for national assembly seats in Iraq. The elections will create the first permanent government in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Many parties are involved and participation so far is enthusiastic.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Iraq, an important deadline has now passed for any political party that is interested in running for seats in the nation's new National Assembly. Elections are scheduled in December for the first permanent government in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

NPR's J.J. Sutherland joins us from Baghdad. J.J., hi.

J.J. SUTHERLAND reporting:

Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now yesterday was the deadline for political parties to register with the Iraqi Electoral Commission to appear on the December ballot. So as far as you know, there was a decent turnout?

SUTHERLAND: There was a huge turnout. I mean, even before Friday there were hundreds of parties and individuals who registered with the commission and late last night there was still a line out the door to register their parties. This ballot is going to be incredibly complicated, as it was in January. Many of the parties have similar names--there's the United Iraqi Alliance, there's the Iraqi National Accord--and each province is going to have its own ballots and proportional representation, very much like the US Congress, where more populated states have more representatives and the less populated states have less representatives. So Baghdad will get many more seats than, say, Anbar province.

WERTHEIMER: Populationwise, the Shia have the majority in the whole country. Does that tell us anything about what's ahead?

SUTHERLAND: Well, the Shia currently control the government and their coalition has seemed to stay together to form a united front on this ballot. There are three major parties within the Shia coalition. There's the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Jafari, there's Skiri, and then, interestingly enough, they've added Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support is mainly among the young and the poor Shiite population of Iraq. And he's something of a controversial figure. He's a nationalist yet he wants an Islamic state. And he's fought with just about everyone, including the United States. He led an uprising against the US last year. And recently his militia, the Mahdi Army, has been involved with clashes with Sunni insurgents. And he's been promised a lot to join the Shiite coalition. The other parties--there's a coalition of three Sunni parties, which is a change in that no Sunnis ran last time, there was the boycott of the election. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is forming a secular coalition to try to grab the middle class and the educated Iraqi and sort of the people who don't want an Islamic party. And the last remaining group is the Kurds in the north who also kept their coalition together to run as a single slate this time around.

WERTHEIMER: Now the new government which will be elected in December will have the power to change the constitution that just passed. Isn't that right?

SUTHERLAND: That's right. This was part of a compromise that was hopefully to bring in Sunni voters to vote for this constitution. There'll be a one-time chance for this new parliament to change elements of this constitution. It's unclear whether the Sunnis will get enough seats to make substantive changes, but there are other people besides them that aren't happy about it.

But the other thing is is that this new government is a permanent government. It will be in power for four years and it will have to deal with all the areas that the constitution left vague, including how to divvy up the oil revenue.

WERTHEIMER: J.J., on another subject, the military is reporting that three more US service people died today. Can you tell us what happened?

SUTHERLAND: There was one soldier died north of Baghdad when the vehicle he was in hit a landmine and two in south Baghdad when a roadside bomb went off nearby their patrol. And violence continues every day here. And by far greater numbers, it's Iraqis who are dying. It's a constant drumbeat. The Baghdad morgue, who we talk to every day, gets between, you know, 30 and 50 bodies a day of people who have been killed by violence. And that's a normal day.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's J.J. Sutherland speaking from Baghdad. J.J., thank you.

SUTHERLAND: Thank you, Linda.

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