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In Iraqi Vote, the Writing Isn't on the Wall

Hopeful Campaign Placards, Slogans Belie Feelings of Ambivalence

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The campaign posters along Baghdad's Waziriya Street are filled with promise.

"For a free and independent Iraq," pledges one. "For a peaceful Iraq," says another.

Campaign posters on Baghdad's Waziriya Street are full of promise, but Iraqis greet them warily. The placards are often candidates' only way to reach out to voters because fears of insurgent attacks have made large public rallies and speeches all but impossible. (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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The posters are plastered on a gray, story-high concrete barricade protecting an Iraqi appeals court from car bombings. They show pictures of religious leaders vested with spiritual power and politicians wielding authority, the Iraqi general who toppled the country's monarchy in a bloody coup in 1958 and a descendant of the royal family who aspires to a revived throne.

"Your vote is precious," declares his poster, "so give it to someone who is trustworthy."

The mood across the street in stationery shops, restaurants and ramshackle cafes, lined by traffic that never surges, never stops but just crawls, is far more complicated. In the religiously mixed neighborhood, the emotions are as jumbled as the posters are clear. There is fear over the vote, hope for the future, disdain at the parties and resilience, that motif of life in Baghdad.

In Waziriya, the posters tell one story -- what Iraq's political parties view as the voters' desires. The conversations, tumbling over each other as they do on any one day, suggest another.

"The Iraqi people need someone who is tough," insisted Hussein Jumaa, a 22-year-old student at the nearby Academy of Fine Arts, finishing off a falafel sandwich at a restaurant. "They don't need someone who is always going to say politely, 'Please, sir.' "

Jumaa said he supported Ayad Allawi, the country's interim prime minister, whose tough talk and distant past as a member of the repressive Baath Party seem to make him a law-and-order favorite. It is a theme delivered relentlessly by Allawi's party on Arabic-language satellite television and on his posters, which read: "Strong leadership and a peaceful country."

Ahmed Hadi, another art student sitting with Jumaa, shook his head. He supported the slate of candidates seen by many Iraqis as blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent Shiite religious leader in the country.

"It belongs to the house of Shiites," he said.

As they talked, Qais Ubaidi, a minibus driver, walked through the restaurant, his impatient gait matching his attitude.

"They're all lies," he insisted, when asked what he thought of the posters. "It's a deceitful process."

A Faint Campaign

The election of a 275-member parliament, which will then draw up a constitution, is scheduled for Jan. 30. In Baghdad, the campaign is underway even as the capital is essentially under siege, bracing for an intensified insurgent campaign to disrupt the vote. Instead of rallies, there are small gatherings in fortified locations -- homes, offices or party headquarters behind barricades and barbed wire. Instead of speeches, there are TV sound bites. Some stations are saturated with electioneering. Instead of pressing the flesh, the candidates put up posters with their messages.

Some are simple. On one of the concrete slabs, stacked like dominoes along Waziriya Street, one leaflet from an independent candidate, Ahmed Taha, meekly says, "I am trying to introduce myself."

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