Four more US soldiers killed as Iraq edges nervously towards election day

Clerics urge Sunnis to vote in poll, but, as borders are sealed ahead of the vote, the insurgency goes on
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The Independent Online

Hamlet is not usually quoted in the mosques of Baghdad but on Friday, Imam Abdullah in the al-Mohsinin mosque in the Yarmouk district, paused dramatically in his address before telling worshippers that "the question for the Sunni people is to be, or not to be".

He was urging them to vote in Thursday's election for the National Assembly. He said the Sunni had committed "a very great error when they did not vote in the January election". Their enemies had taken over the government. The Prime Minister permitted death squads to operate against the Sunni community.

The difference from the election in January is that this time Iraq's five million Sunni will vote. Most of those supporting the armed resistance go to the polls in all but a few militant strongholds. Umm Nadam, a middle-aged housewife shopping in the Karada district of Baghdad, said: "This is the last chance for the Sunni and we should not lose it."

Every flat surface in Baghdad is covered in posters. There are the well-known features of Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister, and Ahmed Chalabi, the Deputy Prime Minister, staring sternly down at passers-by. The grey concrete walls put up to stop suicide bombers provide ideal spaces for political messages.

By tomorrow, Iraqis will start a six-day holiday. The borders will be sealed. The airports will be shut. On election day, all vehicles will be banned from the streets to prevent suicide bombers targeting any of the 6,291 polling stations.

This time, going to vote should not be as perilous as in January when there were numerous attacks by bombers wearing vests packed with explosives. The insurgents come from the Sunni and are unlikely to risk blowing up their own people. Even so, two election workers were shot dead in Mosul yesterday as they put up posters for the Iraqi Islamic Party. Mr Allawi was forced to run from the Shia shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf as worshippers threw their shoes at him. He claimed they wanted to assassinate him.

Attacks on US forces have not eased off. Four American soldiers were killed in Baghdad yesterday, three by gunfire and one by a bomb. A suicide car-bomber destroyed two US Humvees in Tal Afar in northern Iraq.

Nobody doubts the importance of the poll. "This time it is the real thing," said an Iraqi politician after ticking off on his fingers the fictitious turning points in the Iraqi crisis trumpeted by the US and Britain since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The election will decide the composition of the 275-member National Assembly for the next four years. Iraq will have a permanent government rather than a temporary one.

All the three main communities - Shia, Sunni and Kurdish - are likely to vote. They will fill 230 seats in 18 provinces by proportional representation. The remaining 45 will be distributed to parties that won no regional seats but reach a certain threshold. Any remaining seats will go to the most successful parties.

The election winners are likely to be the religious and ethnically based parties, as they were in January. Although there are 231 parties and groups running, only five or six are likely to do well. The greatest number of seats will go to the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition made up primarily of the religious parties. Its main constituents are the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa party and followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It is a powerful combination. The Shia make up 60 per cent of Iraq's population. They and the Kurds are the gainers from the overthrow of Saddam. They who provided the present Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. They are not going to lose control of key institutions such as the Ministry of the Interior, though the present minister, Bayan Jabr, may be replaced.

The Sunni parties may win about 55 seats. The Kurds will get a similar number. The United Iraqi Alliance will probably win 110 to 115. Mr Allawi will do well if he gets more than 30 seats and Mr Chalabi if he gets more than five. Among the Arabs, Shia and Sunni, the clergy are vital in getting out the vote.

It is unlikely that the war will wind down. The Sunni see voting in the election as opening another front, not as ending the armed resistance. As relations between Shia and Sunni deteriorate, both sides feel the need to have their own militias. After the election, the political landscape of Iraq will be clearer, but no less violent.