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

Others are more sophisticated.

The United Iraqi Alliance, the group fielding the most prominent Shiite list, has blanketed parts of Baghdad with messages that lean toward the moralistic. "For the sake of assuring social virtue," says one leaflet. "To guarantee the identity of Islamic Iraq," says another, graced with a portrait of Sistani, whose authority among the most religious Shiites is unquestioned.

This avowedly Shiite list draws on the history of the long-repressed community, which suffered centuries of dispossession at the hands of Sunni rulers, ousted President Saddam Hussein the last in a long line. "Our way is to revive what the criminal Baath regime destroyed," one poster declares over a map of Iraq pictured as cracked mud with red flowers atop. Nearly all the posters cite a Koranic verse. Among the most popular: "God will never change the condition of people until they change it themselves."

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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"Vote for security, distribution of social services and the struggle against unemployment," intones the poster of another coalition, the People's Union, backed by Iraq's venerable Communist Party. The party's posters, often bearing the most eclectic messages in Baghdad, promise "a safe childhood," "national brotherhood" or "the rights of motherhood and childhood."

Ubaidi, the bus driver, scoffed at them without exception.

"They're all put up by thieves who know how to steal very well," he said.

Plying the route from downtown to southern Baghdad, Ubaidi makes no more than $6 a day, down from $23 last fall. His profits were crippled by the weeks-long fuel crisis, which has quintupled prices of gasoline on the black market.

"There's no cooking gas, no cooking oil, no electricity and no gasoline. There's no security and everyone's a thief," the stocky Ubaidi said, as a scratchy cassette of a singer from the Persian Gulf area played over the restaurant stereo. "If Saddam participated in the election, I'd vote. Everyone in Iraq is a thief, but Saddam was a good thief. At least he provided security."

Ubaidi, the son of a Shiite mother and a Sunni father, blamed political parties for intensifying sectarian tensions. Leading Sunni groups have declared a boycott of the vote, and the most militant of them have threatened to disrupt it.

"They're all competing for the throne," he said. "Where were they before?"

It is not an uncommon sentiment toward the parties. Many of the most prominent party leaders were abroad during Hussein's rule, and often their roots are shallow in a society that was effectively depoliticized over 35 years of Baathist rule. Many Iraqis blame the former exiles for the lackluster performance of the interim government and the Governing Council before it. The Shiite slate uses the portrait of Sistani, not its own candidates, on its posters, few of which employ party names.

"People hate the parties," declared 40-year-old Fathi Abed, who runs an auto parts store on Waziriya Street, its shelves stacked with headlights, rear-view mirrors and metallic tissue boxes.

World-weary and nonchalant, Abed said he would vote, even though he insisted the outcome was preordained.

"I'll bet you," he said. "Wait till after the election, and you'll see that it's Ayad Allawi. He's going to win."

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