Politics Shift in Iraq's Shiite Alliance

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Iraq's ruling Shiite alliance, known as "555" for its place on the ballot, is on the defensive in the campaign for a Dec. 15 vote on a national assembly. To bolster its strength, the alliance has embraced radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're less than a week away from an election in Iraq. Iraqis choose a parliament which will choose a new president. And unlike Iraq's past leaders, these officials will form a permanent government under the new Constitution. When the interim parliament was elected last January, many voters did not take part. Sunni Arabs largely stayed away from the polls. This time around they are expected to vote in significant numbers, and that's raising concern within the Shiite alliance that has run Iraq up to now. NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of sirens; boys' voices)

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Outside their school in Baghdad, 11-year-old boys were busy scribbling answers from the smartest boy's homework when fights erupted over who to support in the elections.

(Soundbite of boys fighting)

GARRELS: Judging by the school-yard scuffle, the big race is between secular candidate and former prime minister Ayad Allawi and the ruling alliance of Shiite parties dominated by religious figures.

Unidentified Boy #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Boy #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Alli Sabri(ph) says he would vote for the alliance because he's a Shiite.

ALLI SABRI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: That pretty much sums up the debate among adult Shiites, too. The Shiite alliance is fighting its shoddy record. A story making the rounds is that Prime Minister Jafari has been out of the country so much, a friendly government begged him to stop visiting so often. Last January the alliance had the blessing of Iraq's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This time, Sistani has not publicly endorsed the alliance, known by its place on the ballot as 555. But his aides have warned Shiites against voting for non-religious parties or what they call `small, insignificant groups,' a reference to Shiite parties that have broken away. That leaves 555.

Unidentified Woman: It'll definitely have an impact, particularly in rural areas and governorates. Those who consider themselves conservative Shia are voting 555.

GARRELS: That was an election specialist with the National Democratic Institute, a group affiliated with the US Democratic Party. She asked her name not be used for security reasons. In another effort to bolster its flagging appeal, the alliance has courted radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Sadr, who was virulently anti-American, once decried elections as something imposed by the American occupation. Now his handpicked candidates are on the slate and on an equal footing with the Shiite governing parties. The election specialist at the National Democratic Institute says Sadr brings an important constituency.

Unidentified Woman: Well, there's no doubt that he has a following in Iraq, particularly among men in the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket, men who are often overeducated and underemployed. There's a lot of discontent, and he's a boon. Now there's a problem as well.

GARRELS: Sadr's followers have fought with just about everyone: the Americans, the British, Sunni Arabs, even rival Shiite militias with whom they are now supposed to be working. Take the holy Shiite city of Najaf. A Sadr candidate is heading the alliance ticket, followed by the man who battled Sadr forces there last year. They have publicly put their differences aside, but politicians say they're just below the surface.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: In Baghdad this week, thousands of Muqtada Sadr followers took to the streets. The march marked the anniversary of his father's assassination under Saddam. But it was also a show of force.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: As they beat their backs with chains, they trampled posters of Ayad Allawi. They didn't show much more respect for their Shiite partners, pointedly covering over posters of Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the alliance's main party. While many Shiite parties have close ties to Iran, Sadr casts himself more as an Arab nationalist. Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Dogr(ph), a Sadr organizer, says he's the one to unite Iraq.

Mr. MOHAMED DOGR (Sadr Organizer): (Through Translator) He defends all the sects, and that's what made me feel that he's a real Iraqi. Muqtada Sadr works for God.

GARRELS: But given his past, many worry Sadr's political ascent could herald trouble. He is demanding the US provide a withdrawal timetable, declaring the occupier will never grab Iraq's resources. Sadr has made no move to disband his militia. Members have joined the police in large numbers while keeping their loyalty to Sadr. Squad cars at the demonstration had pictures of Sadr openly taped to the windows. His followers do not appreciate freedom of expression, let alone dissent. Attempts to interview marchers were blocked by Sadr's staff.

Unidentified Man: (Laughs)

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: A local baker baked away, laughing nervously, when approached by a reporter. He, too, refused to speak, clearly fearing the wrath of the Sadr followers. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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