Shias prepare to take power, as the army prepares for violence

Next Sunday is polling day. Kim Sengupta in Basra reports on the expected winners and losers of an election which is sure to be targeted by insurgents
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The Independent Online

Without fanfare, but with single-minded ruthlessness, the Shia Muslims of Iraq are preparing to take power for the first time in a hundred years.

Without fanfare, but with single-minded ruthlessness, the Shia Muslims of Iraq are preparing to take power for the first time in a hundred years.

Sunni Muslim leaders in the country have called for a boycott of the forthcoming election. And the Shias, who already have an inbuilt majority, expect to emerge clear winners when the vote is counted. Long subjugated, first by the divide-and-rule policy of the previous British occupation in the first half of the 20th century, when the minority Sunnis were promoted at their expense, and then by the Sunni-dominated Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, the Shias are determined to seize their chance.

With voters in large swaths of Sunni areas in central Iraq expected to stay away, either due to intimidation or on the instructions of Sunni political parties, the election will in reality be broadly confined to the Shia south. In the north the Kurds will turn out to vote, but they are already seen as more or less semi-autonomous.

No one expects the elections to be surrounded by anything but violence. The Sunni resistance in Iraq has declared that people voting are guilty of collaboration with the occupying powers, and have threatened ferocious retribution. Facing the attacks in the front line in the south are around 9,000 British troops. Their vulnerability was highlighted by the blast at the Shaibah Camp, 20 miles south of Basra, on Thursday, injuring nine soldiers from the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment.

Yesterday a range of security measures were announced, including the closure of Baghdad International Airport next weekend and a three-day night-time curfew, but Iraqi police and army chiefs in the capital have said bluntly that they cannot guarantee security for the polls. Hundreds of them have been killed so far. On Friday insurgents beheaded an Iraqi soldier in broad daylight in the city of Ramadi, near Fallujah, leaving his severed head on the torso with a note warning the security forces not to get involved in the elections. A few hours latera suicide bomber killed 14 Shias as they left a mosque in western Baghdad. Another 40, including many children, were injured.

The reason Sunni militants want to sabotage the elections lies not just in their hatred of the US-British occupation, but in the underlying power struggle in Iraq. The Shias form between 60 and 65 per cent of the population, with Sunni Arabs comprising 13 per cent. The Kurds make up 19 per cent of the population.

The results will be declared around 15 February, and the assembly will then formulate a constitution which will be put to a referendum by 15 October. If it is approved, a new government will be chosen three months later.

The projected election is a vast and complex affair. There are almost 7,500 candidates, in 75 parties and nine coalitions, standing for the 275-member national assembly. Allocation of seats will be by proportional representation: Iraq has not been divided into constituencies. Women are guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats; smaller parties are guaranteed the right to take part. The Baath party, however, is banned.

These measures are supposed to defuse religious differences, and US and British officials have been urging the forming of "mixed" slates. There is, however, little more than lip service paid to this. Shia clerics have issued fatwas to vote and Ayatollah al-Sistani, the spiritual head of the community, has personally played a part in bringing together the grand Shia coalition, United Iraqi Alliance, with 228 candidates. Included in this are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand young cleric who had been, hitherto, an election rejectionist. Even supporters of Ahmed Chalabi, once America's choice for post-war leader but now deeply out of favour, are in the party.

For form's sake, the Alliance has a smattering of Sunni, Kurdish and Christian candidates. But the really significant factor is that Mr Sadr, whose Mehdi Army had fought both the Americans and the British, and who was accused of plotting the assassination of Ayatollah al-Sistani, has his placemen on the slate. This is seen as another example of the Shia determination to sink differences, if only temporarily, to gain power.

The Alliance is not the only Shia party. There are two other main ones, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution. Both are accused of being subsidised by Iran. They have been very active in mobilising voters.

The Sunnis, by contrast, are deeply divided, with some of the main political parties urging a boycott on the grounds that free and fair elections cannot take place in a state of near anarchy. Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, the president of the interim government and a Sunni, has repeatedly asked for the election to be postponed. He fears a boycott will leave the Sunnis disenfranchised - a reverse of the situation in January 1924, when Shia clerics issued fatwas banning the community from taking part in elections under British colonial rule.

"In the 1920s the Shia clerics did not push the Shias to participate in the political life of Iraq, and this led to great suffering by their people," said Sheikh Yawar. "We must learn the lessons. Elections, regardless of timing, are our salvation in Iraq."

But those minded to vote are aware of other voices, those of Osama bin Laden and the man claiming to be his emissary in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who both warn voting would be apostasy. The influential Association of Sunni Scholars declared that voting would be "truly the act of madmen". The threats have been accompanied by action - two of Ayatollah al-Sistani's senior aides have been assassinated by Sunni gunmen.

Ordinary Sunnis, too, are deeply apprehensive. Rashid Ibrahim Ali, a 32-year-old engineer, lives in Baghdad. His family are in Ramadi. "It will be very dangerous to vote even in Baghdad," he said. "But in Ramadi I think it will be impossible. The Americans and the government haven't been in control of Ramadi for months apart from just a few streets in the centre. How can they hold elections there?"

His friend, Said Abdullah Salim, added: "They are blowing up men queuing up to join the police and the army. What do you think they will do to people standing around to vote?" The resentment against the Shias begins to surface. "Why don't they wait until the situation gets more stable?" Mr Salim demanded. "This is bad, because people think the Shias are just taking advantage of the situation."

In Basra, the edicts of Ayatollah al-Sistani urging Shias to vote are plastered on walls, along with slogans stating "A vote is worth more than gold", and "The time has come for you and Iraq".

WHAT'S WORRYING IRAQI VOTERS

Despite the ever-present threat of a suicide bombing or US troops opening fire at random, security is not the main issue for Iraqi voters. They can avoid those dangers if they keep clear of military or police checkpoints, but everyone is affected by the endless shortages of everything from petrol to electricity.

Fuel: In the Jadriyah district of Baghdad, drivers sometimes sleep two nights running in their cars as they wait in a two-mile queue for petrol. Black market fuel is available, but it is often 30 times the normal price, heightening the anger of a country with the world's second-largest oil reserves.

Power: Electricity supply is worse than ever. At the end of last year, the last time for which there are official figures, only 845MW of electricity was available in Baghdad, compared with 2,500MW under Saddam Hussein.Iraqis largely blame the US for the collapse of infrastructure.

Water: Although water supplies remain erratic, this is less of a problem in winter than it is in summer. However, if water shortages this year are as bad as they were last year in the heat of summer, public fury is likely to erupt.

Communications: Mobile phones, banned by Saddam, were welcomed in Baghdad after the invasion. But by the end of last year they were often failing to work for days at a time because the company in charge had sold too many, and the equipment it installed was overburdened.

Heating and cooking: It is surprisingly cold at night during winter, and Iraqis try to keep warm by huddling next to paraffin heaters. But paraffin is in short supply, and has risen in price from 1,500 Iraqi dinars to 7,500 dinars a litre. The price of domestic gas for cooking has shot up even more steeply.

Reconstruction: In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, a decade ago, Iraq rapidly rebuilt its bridges and patched up power stations and refineries. Iraqis often contrast this with the dismal failure of the US and its Iraqi allies since 2003. Construction materials like cement are expensive. Cement plants can only operate part time because they lack electricity.

Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

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