'Yesterday, we were out on the streets. Today, we are campaigning'

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The Independent Online

A few months ago, Fattahlah Ghazi al-Esmaili draped a keffiyeh across his shoulders and wrote about Iraq's Shia uprising against the US-led occupation forces as the editor of Ishriqat, the newspaper of the rebel cleric MuqtadaSadr.

A few months ago, Fattahlah Ghazi al-Esmaili draped a keffiyeh across his shoulders and wrote about Iraq's Shia uprising against the US-led occupation forces as the editor of Ishriqat, the newspaper of the rebel cleric MuqtadaSadr.

Now the 38-year-old has a neatly trimmed beard and stands tall in a beige suit as he pumps the flesh, speaks to potential voters and meets Iraqi leaders in his run for parliament atop a 180-candidate list representing the long-impoverished Iraqi Shias of Sadr City.

"Before, we were men of the Mehdi Army," says the journalist, who writes under the pen name, Fattah al-Sheikh. "Now we are men of politics. Yesterday, we were out on the streets. Today, we are here campaigning, and hopefully tomorrow, we'll be in the presidential palace."

Despite rising violence and public confusion about the elections, Iraq's parliamentary election campaign is picking up steam as the 30 January poll approaches, with candidates discreetly making campaign stops and distributing literature. More than 100 individuals, parties and coalitions are vying for the 275-seat parliament, which will name a new government, draw up a constitution and prepare for elections by the end of 2005.

Iraq's Sunni minority, which stands to lose heavily after decades of running the country, bitterly opposes the election. Some have joined Islamic militants linked to al-Qa'ida, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, last week all but declared war on the election in a videotape broadcast on Arabic television. At least two candidates and three election workers have been assassinated since the campaign season began in mid-December.

But most of Iraq's Shias, especially those in places such as Sadr City that were often neglected and repressed under Saddam, look forward to the elections, though many are unsure about what they are voting for and what free elections mean.

Even Sadr, who led an uprising against the Americans and originally vocally opposed the election, now appears to be withholding judgement on the vote.

Loyalists of the interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the interim government have issued a flood of press releases trumpeting their achievements, such as signing a scientific co-operation agreement with Egypt or starting work on bridge repairs in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

Many candidates avoid street appearances or rallies in favour of well-guarded press conferences that serve to drum up attention in the media.

But Mr Esmaili is among the few who venture out regularly into the streets of the capital, often with no escort other than his driver, an amputee who uses crutches. In a typical campaign day, he pays his respects to fallen Shia martyrs, tribal sheikhs and community leaders as he shuttles from appointment to appointment in the sewage-infested Sadr City as well as smarter quarters of the capital.

"This city was oppressed in the time of Saddam," Mr Esmaili says, repeating his standard stump speech. "Sadr City should now be like Oja, Saddam's birthplace. Oja raised Saddam to president. Sadr City is much bigger than Oja. So we should run for elections and raise one of our own to power."

Mr Esmaili's campaign advisers are his family and friends. He says donations from rich friends and money from his newspaper, with revenues of about $1,600 (£850) a week, fund his campaign. A wealthy friend lent him a spacious house in an upmarket section of Sadr City. The two-storey building serves as a campaign headquarters.

The United Iraqi Alliance, a powerful Shia coalition with the tacit endorsement of the Iraqi religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, invited Mr Esmaili to join their list, but he declined. Followers of the Sadr family of clerics have had long-standing theological differences with followers of Ayatollah Sistani and political differences with the Hakim clan, whose scion, Abdul Aziz Hakim, tops the Alliance list. Mr Esmaili and his supporters hope to draw on the considerable number of Iraqis who adhere to the Sadr clerical line.

"We are betting on our own people," Mr Esmaili says. But he gets nervous when asked about his relationship to the Muqtada faction, and says he has not spoken to him about the campaign. But clearly, the two are friends. The screen-saver on Mr Esmaili's hi-tech cell phone is a digital photograph of him with a smiling Sadr. "Muqtada is a leader," he says. "But he put his trust in us and made all of us leaders and urged us to follow our consciences."

To potential voters, Mr Esmaili fashions himself as a blend of pious religious disciple, learned intellectual and engaged community activist. Though he heads an electoral list called the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres (a name as unwieldy in Arabic as in English) and everyone he meets knows he is running for office, he rarely asks for votes, discusses details of his platform or solicits funds.

At an event commemorating the death in 1999 of the revered cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadr, the present cleric's father, Mr Esmaili praises the God and the prophet Mohammad and chants, "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!" with the crowd.

At the next meeting, he and a group of tribal elders loyal to the Sadr line, try to mend fences with an important group, the Iraqi Journalists' Union. Last summer, Mehdi Army militiamen temporarily detained the head of the union and accused him of being a Saddam loyalist. Mr Esmaili apologises for the incident, praises the hard work of Iraqi journalists and kisses him as he departs. Far from asking the powerful tribal leaders accompanying him for campaign contributions, he pays their taxi fare back to Sadr City.

Last stop for the day is an Islamic book fair at Mustansiriyah University, where he greets students and examines tracts on the Koran. Why not just ask the students to vote for him, tell them about his programme and explain why he's the best man for their vote? Why not ask the tribal leaders for donations? He says he does not need to.

"Iraqis are very bright," he says. "They will ignore anyone who will try to pamper them and flatter them with politeness. But they will honour anybody who looks and acts from head to toe like an Iraqi."