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Coaching Iraq's New Candidates, Discreetly

"There's no lack of people wanting to offer their assistance," said the country director. "Everybody wants to play here." So far, however, almost everyone has weighed the risks and stayed away. The daily car bombs, assassinations, kidnappings and other attacks have kept most of the global altruists over the border in Jordan.

There is one exception. Over the weekend, a lone international election observer ventured into Baghdad and took up residence in the Green Zone, the fortress at the heart of the capital. Others remained in Amman, as clean and secure as Baghdad is dirty and violent.

Campaign posters for various parties cover a wall in Baghdad. Iraqis are to choose a National Assembly and provincial officials in voting on Sunday. (Khalid Mohammed -- AP)

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"If you go to Amman these days, you can meet everybody," the country director said.

But if Iraq's nascent democrats find themselves with no options but the Americans for training in politics, civil society, women's empowerment and governance, they apparently harbor few complaints.

"They're very good," said Jassim Hilfi, a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party who said he had read every word of the institute's Political Campaign Planning Manual and every other publication handed out. "They benefited us a great deal."

The Communist Party, which predates the Baath Party that persecuted its members for decades, has mounted a vibrant campaign that political observers in Iraq say may outperform expectations in Sunday's balloting.

"They were quite fair," Hilfi said. "We did not feel there was any segregation or playing favorites. Frankly, I'm very grateful. This was the only support we got from outside the country."

Other groups said they got less out of the training.

"In terms of know-how, there was little there for us," said Saad Jawad Qindeel, political director of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The party, also known as SCIRI, was founded more than two decades ago as an opposition exile group in Iran. It heads the so-called unified Shiite Muslim slate that entered the campaign as the presumptive favorite, not least for being organized by the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior cleric revered by most of Iraq's Shiite majority.

Qindeel said SCIRI officials joined U.S.-funded delegations to scout elections in Indonesia and Lithuania. The party also found some of the IRI's polling helpful in fashioning its message. And it redeemed the voucher that the Democratic Institute offered to all candidates, good for 70,000 posters at Baghdad print shops. But for SCIRI, it amounted to token help.

"We print in batches of 100,000, usually," Qindeel said. "At the end of the day, it's the new parties that will benefit."

About 400 parties made themselves known to the Democratic Institute, which focused on organization while IRI, in a division of labor, focused on message. All got the benefit of the same primer on organization, led by the garrulous Capitol Hill veteran who heads the institute's party development arm.

"Political parties seem to think Americans know something about parties and organization," she said. "They do see us sometimes as interlocutors. 'Hey, tell George Bush such and such.' I say, 'You know, George Bush doesn't take my calls. I voted for the other guy.' "

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