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Coaching Iraq's New Candidates, Discreetly

Every group got the basic instruction on practical application of electoral fundamentals and the principles behind them, universal notions of consensus and consultation that are as deeply rooted in Iraqi culture as anywhere else. But some habits had to be unlearned. In a country emerging from decades of one-party rule, instructors made an early effort to coax Iraqis away from the tea-room politicking that seeks succor in fellow elites and to get people to understand that the way to reach voters is by knocking on doors.

"And parties are doing it," the instructor said. "In political terms, door-to-door campaigning is like crack cocaine. You do it once, you're not going to want to do anything else."

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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Those, like the Communists, who tried it early came away with new ideas, culled from the people they sought to represent. "Suddenly you're not enslavers of the people, you're servants of the people," she said.

Other subjects called for more delicacy. Several Iraqi parties that began as opposition groups -- including SCIRI and the two mainstream Kurdish parties -- come to the election with substantial militias. Once necessary for protection against Hussein's forces, most of these irregulars were nominally subsumed in the new Iraqi security forces. Still, by many accounts, they continue to cast a shadow over the emerging political landscape.

"We try to explain the downside," said the political party instructor. "For all of your 'activists,' you are responsible for their behavior. If they are bureaucrats and they are abusing that power, you will pay the price at the ballot box. If they are police or national guards or just guys running around with guns, you will pay for their behavior."

At the same time, for all the fears that the elections will be defined by violence, the democracy instructors speak ardently of the keen appetite for the vote expressed by ordinary Iraqis. About 80 percent of Iraqis say they intend to turn out Sunday, a polling figure the instructors call credible given the quiet determination they have seen among rank and file citizens.

Substantial evidence of that resolve accumulated in recent months, as thousands of Iraqis defied continued threats to do the mundane work of the elections, training as monitors and election officials.

But the instructors said an episode last October first brought the matter into high relief. The institute had scheduled a workshop on coalition-building at the Palestine Hotel. About 180 Iraqis sent word they would attend.

Moments before the appointed hour, a vehicle bomb exploded in the street outside. U.S. troops cordoned off the hotel as there were reports that a second suicide bomber was cruising the area. The workshop organizers were talking about rescheduling when their cell phones started ringing.

"People were calling to apologize about being late," the country director said. "The troops were blocking the hotel, but they were waiting outside in the smoke and the wreckage and the body parts."

In the end, after the cordon was lifted, about 165 people showed up. "At that point," he said, "I kind of figured there's something going on here."

Wright reported from Washington.

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