Gunmen attacked my party, but Iraqis sense change

Candidate’s view
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The Independent Online

The excitement is palpable. For the first time since the fall of Saddam, Iraqi people can sense that there is a real possibility of change within the country.

Baghdad is full of colourful campaign posters and party leaders' voices are commanding the airwaves. We can't pretend, however, that these elections have not been marred by corrupt and underhand tactics and a reversion to naked sectarianism. The banning by the Maliki government of more than 500 candidates – including 20 from my party list – for alleged Baathist links has been the most depressing development.

For security reasons we've not been able to host rallies and public gatherings. During a TV interview a viewer phoned in to ask why I had not been to visit supporters in the holy city of Najaf. I reminded him that the last two times travelled there I came close to being killed. Even putting up billboards has been problematic. Our team in Baghdad were detained for 24 hours by government forces. Then in Mosul they were attacked by masked gunmen. Such incidents have been repeated across the country.

In the first three days of the official campaign five parties had their headquarters bombed. One of our leading candidates, Faris Ibrahim Al-Katib, was ambushed on his way home after giving interviews. Gunmen opened fire from a white van that had followed him out of Baghdad, killing one of his bodyguards.

Groups have gone out after midnight vandalising and defacing campaign posters. And it was difficult to compete with the government parties when ministers were using government helicopters to distribute campaign paraphernalia. It is unlikely that any one party will win a majority. Smaller parties like mine maybe in the position of "kingmakers" and we will be considering very carefully who we go into a coalition with.

Iraq has a long way to go to find peace and prosperity but with strong leadership I believe we can eventually become a strong and stable democracy. The first step is for the Iraqi people to show bravery, stand up to intimidation and cast their votes tomorrow.

Ayad Jamal Aldin is a Shia cleric and leader of the secular Ahrar party