Threats and intimidation in south as Shia scent victory

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Nowhere in Iraq will voters go to the polls today with more conviction or in greater numbers than in the Shia heartland of the south.

The only question will be the size of the majority awarding the Shia-dominated interim government a full four-year term.

Security chiefs in Iraq's second-largest city were confident yesterday that voting would go ahead without major trouble. Although one officer said a rocket attack earlier this week on the Basra headquarters of the Iraq National Accord (INA), the party of the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, had killed three people, this was denied by the regional police chief, Major-General Hassan Sewadi al-Saadi.

But General Saadi himself spoke of unconfirmed intelligence that, with all vehicle traffic banned today, bombs might be brought into central Basra on handcarts or motorcycles. On infiltration of the police by Shia militias, one of the worst problems for the British military authorities, the commander said polling day would be "a very good test" of their loyalty.

Some 70 parties are contesting the elections in Basra but fear of the militias is widespread. Several politicians who spoke to the foreign press complained of intimidation, but refused to name the individuals or organisations making threats. One candidate even declined to give his name, saying: "Coming to see you could be seen as wrong."

The most-feared militias are Muqtada al-Sadr's Army of Mehdi and the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri). Both groups, along with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Dawa Party, are part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list, known universally as "555" from its electoral number.

"We will win the lion's share of the vote here, over 75 per cent," predicted Qassim Ateyah al-Juburi, a member of the interim assembly and local 555 spokesman. He dismissed the other parties' complaints about militia influence, saying the Army of Mehdi was now simply a "cultural organisation".

The Badr Brigade had fought Saddam Hussein from Iran for 35 years, he said. "Do we just dismiss them? They have to be incorporated into the government forces, and I think that will become a reality after the election."

Although the UIA's confidence is justified, its vote in the south could be eroded by discontent with the interim government's record, as well as the participation of the Sunni minority, around a quarter of the voters in Basra province. "It was a great mistake to boycott the January election," said Sheikh Adnan al-Ganim, an influential tribal leader who is allied to the largest Sunni grouping.

In a shopping street in Badran, a relatively prosperous though rubbish-strewn district of Basra, there was unexpected support for the 731 list headed by Mr Allawi, who is presenting himself as the more secular, less Iranian-influenced, alternative to the UIA. Among several pairs of friends, including two off-duty policemen, one was backing 555, the other 731. "I'm voting 555 as the least bad choice," said Abdullah al-Basri, a 43-year-old merchant, "but my friend here thinks Allawi is the best man. I just hope the parties can co-operate after the election. None of the politicians work only for Iraq."

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