Iraqi Leaders Struggle to Create Stability

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As the violence in Iraq continues, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders are gearing up for another national election. Iraq's transitional leaders say they're determined to build a unified state despite the killings that sometimes hit very close to home.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's been another very busy news day here in Washington, DC. But let's not lose sight of some news on the other side of the world. Iraqis, near the border with Syria, say a US warplane killed dozens of civilians when it bombed a house. The military says the strike targeted an al-Qaeda leader. As violence like that continues, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders are gearing up for another national election scheduled for later this year. Iraq's transitional leaders say they are determined to build a unified state, despite the killings that sometimes hit very close to home. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

There are hundreds of parties preparing for the December 15th elections, but only a handful of dominant coalitions. The largest is made up of religious Shiites, followed by the Kurds, Sunnis and a secular coalition. Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite SCIRI Party, spoke with American journalists yesterday about the critical need to hold the factions together in the new government. He says the much-improved Sunni turnout in the recent constitutional referendum means not even the Shiite majority will be able to win enough of the 275 seats to rule on its own.

Vice President ADIL ABDUL MAHDI (Iraq): If the alliance gets 100, 110 and then it will need the Kurdish slate. Both of them will need a Sunni slate and maybe a fourth one. The pressure is towards unity and collective (unintelligible). This is the pressure. Of course there will be some individual interests, some partisan interests but the general pressure is in this direction.

KENYON: Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi heads a secular slate of candidates that he introduced on Saturday. He echoed the call for unity but also advocated an end to sectarian passions that he said are holding the new Iraq back. Allawi staked an early claim to issues that are likely to be hugely popular with the battered Iraqi voting public: security and access to normal public services.

Mr. AYAD ALLAWI (Former Iraqi Prime Minister): (Through Translator) I'm certain that you are looking for a government that provides you with jobs and combats the rife unemployment, a government that provides you with services, electricity and water, health care and a clean environment, and a government that will revitalize the economic sector.

KENYON: Vice President Abdul Mahdi recognizes the immediate political power of issues such as unreliable electricity and long gas lines, but he says there's a list of American administrators and Iraqi politicians who tried to deliver services before the security situation was stabilized. He says all they accomplished was a massive waste of time and money.

Vice Pres. ABDUL MAHDI: We spent a lot of money, but it was all wasted by the terrorists. We lost almost $9 billion, losses of oil exports because of sabotage. So if we can invest those $9 billion, you can get electricity better within one year, two years.

KENYON: Unfortunately, Abdul Mahdi's answer doesn't offer the immediate gratification voters tend to prefer. He also has no rosy scenarios for how long this political process may take: four, eight, even 12 years before Iraqis can be elected on the basis of their policies and skills as opposed to their religious or ethnic affiliation. But his determination to press ahead in the face of devastating violence suddenly becomes painfully clear. His visitors don't realize that during this interview, Abdul Mahdi's older brother, Ghalib, a Cabinet adviser, has been fighting for his life in a Baghdad hospital, having been shot in an ambush hours earlier. An aide enters the room and murmurs in Arabic to the vice president that his older brother is dead. Abdul Mahdi apologizes for cutting the interview short.

Vice Pres. ABDUL MAHDI: I would have stayed but they told me they assassinated my brother.

KENYON: Today Adil Abdul Mahdi has a funeral to attend, then it's back to the job of convincing grieving Iraqi families, including his own, that painstaking political progress is worth the effort, even in the face of relentless bloodshed.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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