LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. As Iraq readies to elect its provincial governments this Saturday, the southern part of the country is where much of the action is. It's mostly Shiite, and it's become the main political battleground for two of the strongest parties. Those parties are allies in the national government, but their rivalry in the south could threaten that alliance, as we hear from NPR's JJ Sutherland.
JJ SUTHERLAND: Diwaniyah sits on a branch of the Euphrates River a bit more than a hundred miles south of Baghdad. It's a market town and the capital of Qadisiyah province. The area around it is dotted with rice fields and palm trees. The streets of Diwaniyah have become the public battleground of the electoral campaign. Political posters are everywhere.
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SUTHERLAND: Mahdi Abdullah thinks perhaps there are too many.
MAHDI ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) We see them on the houses, shops, and light posts. They have defaced our city with their posters.
SUTHERLAND: The faces of two politicians dominate the landscape here. The first is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His Dawa party has surged in popularity in recent months. His supporters say he is a strong leader who has helped bring a fragile peace to the country. His party appeals to a middle-class, more secular Shiite population. He's also been courting Shiite tribal leaders. The other politician pictured is Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. His party's posters strike a more religious theme. The Supreme Council is seen as closer to Iran than the Dawa party. It draws its support primarily from among the poor and the more religious. The Supreme Council's leader in the south is Hasan al Zamahly.
HASAN AL ZAMAHLY: (Through Translator) Our duty as religious people and as representatives of this party is to call on our people to participate to preserve the political future for them as sons of these provinces. And our political future depends on the region south of Baghdad.
SUTHERLAND: The Supreme Council is pressing for the creation of a large autonomous region in the south, much like the Kurds already have in the north, a southern mega-province that would control the region's vast oil fields. Fadhil Mawat sits on the Qadisiyah Provincial Council. A Dawa party member, he says the Supreme Council's plan would be disastrous for Iraq, and he has made it a central campaign issue.
FADHIL MAWAT: (Through Translator) The people have realized that if the provinces become more powerful than the central government, that would lead to the division of Iraq.
SUTHERLAND: Prime Minister Maliki is making a huge push in these provincial elections, campaigning hard in the south in an effort to build a base for national elections later this year. At the moment, the Supreme Council controls most of the southern provinces and their local security forces. Mawat claims the Supreme Council leaders are using the police to intimidate their opposition, including the Dawa party.
MAWAT: (Through Translator) They're trying to provoke us. It reached the point where some of our list members, including myself, have been threatened with assassination.
SUTHERLAND: The Supreme Council's Zamahly counters those charges by alleging Prime Minister Maliki is using the Iraqi military as a political force. He cites a recent parade in another southern province.
AL ZAMAHLY: (Through Translator) All the army vehicles that took part in the parade carried posters of Maliki and his new political list. It was kind of election propaganda. The army should not be politicized.
SUTHERLAND: It's this kind of maneuvering that has people worried here in Diwaniyah and elsewhere in the south. Local analysts say there's a real possibility the Supreme Council could lose control of some provinces, and there are fears that the transfer of power may not go peacefully, especially if the election isn't seen as legitimate. JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Diwaniyah, Iraq.
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