Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Iraq, voters are expected to go the polls sometime this fall for provincial elections. Nowhere will the votes be more contested than in Basra. That southern province is at the center of Iraq's oil industry, and it's considered crucial by many Shiite political parties.

A recent Iraqi army offensive against feuding Shiite militias in the area has brought a measure of stability to Basra, but it's also left many local Shiite politicians angry, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Children splash happily in what is now Basra's largest public pool. Up until the Iraqi operation two months ago, the building where the pool is housed was only open to members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shiite group in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition.

Swimming coach Ali Ahmed Abdul Majid(ph) says it's now open to the public, and the people here are grateful.

Mr. ALI AHNED ABDUL MAJID (Swimming Coach, Basra, Iraq): (Through translator) Now the situation is very good. The city is full of security. There is no harassment by anyone. Basra is now secure, thank God.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gestures like this one and the recent security gains in Basra have given Prime Minister Maliki a boost in this, the most important city in Iraq's south. Ninety percent of Iraq's oil wealth comes from the Basra area, making it a sought-after political prize.

The upcoming provincial elections could redistribute power in the south. In 2005, parties allied to the governing Shiite coalition won big here in part because candidates representing radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr boycotted the vote. The Sadrists were expected to do better this time around, at the expense of the ruling parties. But the Basra operation in which the Iraqi army battled the militia loyal to Sadr has left the Sadr trend weakened.

Dr. Ahmed al-Hussani(ph) is a leading Sadr political officer in Basra. He says the government security operation here had political aims.

Dr. AHMED al-HUSSANI (Sadr Political Officer, Basra, Iraq): (Through translator) The government did this on purpose to influence the results of the coming elections, to defame and attribute crimes to the sons of Sadr trend, to decrees for purity of the trend in Basra Province.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The government has denied that charge. A new provision in the election law that bans parties that have their own militias, though, also directly targets the Sadrists. Now, Hassani says the Sadrists won't run candidates under their party name. Rather, the movement's candidates will run on other, smaller lists.

Dr. al-HUSSANI: (Through translator) The political side is not of a great importance for us in the current time. We will take part by supporting independent figures (unintelligible) that can be related to Sadr trend or not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Sadrists are not the only ones unhappy by the recent turn of events in Basra. Sheik Mohammad al-Zudawi(ph) is an advisor to the provincial council here. He plans to run as an independent in the next elections. He says the government has been taking advantage of the success of the military operation to seize control of key posts in the south.

Sheik MOHAMMAD al-ZUDAWI (Provincial Council Advisor, Basra, Iraq): (Through translator) What we are seeing now is a clear control by Maliki party in Basra after the military operation, which being happened in the province. Basra is now headed to a one-party system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Iraqi government has moved, demoted or fired more than a dozen in the southern Iraqi oil sector in the last month alone and replaced them with loyalists. Those targeted were opposed to the oil ministry's plan to bring international companies in for long-term development deals here.

Fadhila, or the Islamic Virtue Party, is another of the smaller political factions also leery of what's happened here. The deputy secretary-general, Dr. Dirham Adjwad(ph), says the large Shiite parties will try to win the upcoming elections at any cost.

Dr. DIRHAM ADJWAD (Deputy Secretary-General, Fadhila): (Through translator) We are concerned that there will be (unintelligible). We think the government will not achieve retreat except by fraud, and therefore, they will try to rig the elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But on the streets of Basra, many people here expressed an ennui with politics. In the five years since the fall of Saddam, little has been done for the Basraris(ph) or their city. It has no sewage system. Garbage clogs the streets. Services are almost non-existent. Basra resident Satar Jabar(ph) says he doesn't trust any of the politicians anymore.

Mr. SATAR JABAR: (Through translator) I doubt that I will vote this year, and I intend to tear down any posters or banners I see. Many of the people here in Basra won't vote for these parties anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's still not exactly clear when the elections will take place. Squabbling in Iraq's national parliament has meant that the election law that will set the date of the vote has not yet been passed. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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