BASRA, Iraq, Jan. 24 -- Along Basra's Algeria Street, a bustling thoroughfare as storied and dreary as this city, Adnan Abu Tariq hurried to his trading company office Monday and whispered his plans for Sunday's elections.
"I will choose anyone who believes in freedom," the 53-year-old businessman insisted.
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Furtively, Abu Tariq then looked both ways -- out at traffic snarled along a muddy street with buckling pavement, and into an arcade of dusty shops cloaked in the darkness of a blackout that had stretched 24 hours. With a hint of melodrama, he hid his face behind a stack of papers sheathed in a blue folder. And in a murmur, he spoke again: "Anyone but the religious parties."
Among the fault lines that define Sunday's vote for an Iraqi parliament, the divide between religious and secular is one of the most decisive. The slate that has attracted the most attention is a coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance, which brings together Iraq's most prominent Shiite parties and, many Iraqis believe, has the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Its campaign is steeped in religious imagery, and its success in the elections would ensure a voice for the country's conservative clergy in the writing of a new constitution.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, those parties have effectively run Basra. Under their leadership, power and water supplies remain sporadic, city officials have been accused of corruption, and political killings have sown fear in the city. Judging by the opinions of residents, what may be postwar Iraq's first experiment in Islamic rule may also be its first failure.
"How long has it been? Two years?" Salah Abdullah, 34, asked while shopping at a cell phone store downtown. "Show me one person from the parties who has paved the road. Either you're a thief working for them or you are on your own."
"They failed," he said dismissively, jabbing his finger. "They're riffraff, and they've used religion as a cover."
The Weight of Power
Basra, a onetime jewel of the Middle East scarred by three wars in 25 years, has become a surprising, unintended laboratory for the marriage of political Islam and democracy in the Arab world. In Egypt, Syria, Persian Gulf states and elsewhere, authoritarian rulers have often cited the popular support for Islamic parties and their grass-roots networks as an argument against democracy. But here in Basra, simply being in authority appears to have sapped that support. The biggest challenge those parties faced was not taking power, residents said, but what to do once they were in charge and saddled with the unenviable task of making sense of postwar Iraq.
"They had an opportunity, and they didn't seize it," said Amar Abdel-Ali, another customer at the phone store. "They could have done good work and gained votes, but they didn't prove anything -- not even a quarter of what we wanted."
The party at the center of Basra politics is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, sits atop the electoral slate of the United Iraqi Alliance. Founded by Iraqi exiles in neighboring Iran in 1982, the party returned to southern Iraq and Baghdad after the U.S. invasion. It was led by Hakim's brother, Mohammed Bakir Hakim, a respected ayatollah who was assassinated by a devastating car bomb detonated outside one of Shiite Islam's most sacred shrines in Najaf in August 2003.
In Basra, whose majority Shiite population has been largely spared the carnage of Baghdad, Hakim's movement soon emerged as the best-organized, best-funded and most influential organization among 25 or so contenders in the city. The group is now seen as the dominant force on the city council, and leaders of the Badr Organization, its militia, hold the office of mayor and powerful positions within the city's security forces.
With some other Islamic groups perceived by residents as little more than gangs, the party oversaw a growing conservatism in a city long famed as the most libertine in the region. Liquor stores, once numbering in the dozens, have shuttered. Shadowy, vigilante justice was meted out to former members of Hussein's Baath Party. At high schools and at Basra University, women were encouraged -- often by force -- to wear veils.
"Those who control the power in the administration are the Islamic parties, so they should take responsibility for the situation," said Majid Sari, the leader of a small party in Basra who is running on a secular slate known as the National Democratic Coalition.
As Sari spoke, the lights went out in his office. "This is one of the new government improvements," he quipped.