ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In Iraq, the political campaign is in full swing ahead of the March 7th parliamentary elections. There are two main groups vying for power, one led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the other, an alliance of Iranian-backed parties. And nowhere is the battle between them more fierce than in the country's Shiite heartland.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently traveled to Iraq's south, and she has this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nouri al-Maliki is Iraq's unlikely strongman initially seen as a weak compromise candidate when he was installed as prime minister four years ago, Maliki's now accused by his rivals of being a dictator and waiting to secure another term. He needs to win big in Iraq's Shiite south. On a multicity tour of the region this past week, Maliki told the crowds that he is a man who can deliver.
Mr. NOURI AL-MALIKI (Prime Minister, Iraq): (Translator) We have achieved security. We've signed huge oil contracts which will give Iraq money. I'm not telling you that we want to achieve something, we have already achieved something.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maliki's coalition called State of Law did well in provincial elections last year. But more recently, his popularity has waned, according to some Iraq analysts. A series of high profile terrorist attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere have called into question his security credentials and what some call his heavy-handed approach to governance has also provoked criticism.
Maliki's main rival in the south is the Iraqi National Alliance. It includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc. ISCI's leader, Ammar al-Hakim, was also campaigning in the south this week, speaking to a crowd in Diwaniyah, he said the time is right for change.
Mr. AMMAR AL-HAKIM (Leader, Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq): (Translator) Iraq deserves better than what it has now. With the grace of God and your help, the Iraqi National Alliance will be able to revive this country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Both sides are using whatever means they can to secure votes. What won Maliki a lot of support in last year's provincial elections were the so-called tribal support councils he established. In return for money and positions, tribal leaders promised to deliver votes for the prime minister -and they did.
One of these tribal leaders is Sheik Nabeel al-Fatlawi. Interviewed by phone in the city of Diwaniyah, the sheik said his tribe will vote for Maliki again this time, despite the blandishments of other political groups.
Mr. SHEIK NABEEL AL-FATLAWI (Tribal Leader): (Translator) Other parties are promising tribal leaders positions in ministries in return for votes. But the tribes here know who supported them at the beginning, who was with them during hardships and who will support them in the future. This is why all the tribes will support President Nouri al-Maliki.
GARCIA-Navarro: Despite vast oil deposits, much of Iraq's south is dirt poor. Successive Shiite-led governments since 2004 have done little to alleviate that. For many here, the election campaign has brought a bonanza. Money, blankets, appliances such as coolers or heaters are often distributed to win votes. Once the goods have been given out, though, it's not clear if those who take them will keep their word and vote for their benefactors.
Dr. Nima al-Ibadi heads the Iraqi Center for Research and Studies in Najaf. He says Maliki will do well because he's using the resources of government to sway voters.
Dr. NIMA AL-IBADI (Iraqi Center for Research and Studies, Najaf): (Translator) The fact that he is in office leaves him in possession of important government tools, which he is using.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ibadi says Maliki's rivals are presenting themselves as candidates of change.
Dr. AL-IBADI: (Translator) The Iraqi National Alliance doesn't have to take the blame for the lapses of the authorities, and therefore, it can make promises.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A recent poll Ibadi conducted shows that both sides will be winners in the upcoming vote, but neither will have an absolute majority.
Dr. AL-IBADI: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says neither Maliki's list or Hakim's list will be able to impose whom they want as prime minister. So, probably a weak nominee will ultimately be named, he says, much how Nouri al-Maliki himself came to power four years ago.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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