Shiites Close Ranks In Advance Of Iraqi National Elections

Hoping to magnify their political impact, members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority have backed a slate of candidates for the upcoming national elections and are issuing statements calling voting a “religious and national duty.”

Iraqis will elect a 275-member National Assembly this month, which will in turn write a new constitution for the nation. Shiite Muslims, who constitute a majority of Iraqis, hope to gain control of the country. Under former leader Saddam Hussein, a minority of Sunni Muslims ran Iraq. The country was essentially secular.

The Shiites have a vision of a different Iraq. Shiite Muslims are usually more open to religious control of government and extreme interpretations of Islam. Shiites control neighboring Iran, where a hard-line Islamic government has opposed the United States since 1979.

In early December, Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar charged that Iran is bankrolling political parties in Iraq in an effort to create another fundamentalist Islamic state in the region. At the same time, Jordan’s King Abdullah charged that more than 1 million Iranians have crossed the border to Iraq to vote in the election.

“It is in Iran’s vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq,” Abdullah said. “And therefore, the involvement you’re getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran.”

The Washington Post reported that Abdullah said Iran’s goal is to change the balance of power in the region.

“If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we’ve opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq,” he said. “I’m looking at the glass half-full, and let’s hope that’s not the case. But strategic planners around the world have got to be aware that is a possibility.”

Shiite leaders in Iraq, meanwhile, hope to present a united front. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has brought together Shiites and various religious parties under a United Iraqi Alliance, which will sponsor 240 candidates. National elections are scheduled for Jan. 30, although Sunni religious leaders have called for a boycott.

Thirty of Sistani’s candidates are followers of Moqtada Sadr, an anti-American cleric who led a violent insurgency that battled U.S. forces last year. An additional 25 are drawn from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a party outlawed by Hussein and since based in Iran. Twenty other candidates come from a small religious party called Dawa.

Muslim clerics are conducting an un­precedented mobilization of the Shiite majority. Based in mosques, the drive seeks to convince Shiites that voting is a religious obligation.

The Washington Post reported on one Shiite leader who lectured attendees at a mosque in Baghdad. Laith Haideri, a Shiite prayer leader, held a gold-colored sword in his hand as he told about 100 worshippers that they must oppose efforts to stop the elections.

“We must encourage those fearful and hesitant,” Haideri said. “Elections are the best way to bring order, security and an accepted, legitimate government.”

Haideri criticized Sunni insurgents fighting U.S. troops, referring to them sarcastically as “brother mujaheddin.”

“The clergy are advocating elections 100 percent,” said Sami Shamousi, a prayer leader of a Shiite community in Baghdad. “It has become a religious responsibility for us to encourage participation in the elections.”