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Iraqi Sheik Struggles for Votes, And Against Religious Tradition

Mahmoud, a deserter, took part in the rebellion. When the army returned, he said, he fled -- first to Basra, then by car and foot up the Tigris to Nasiriyah, to Hilla and finally Baghdad. Months later, he said, he returned a fugitive, hiding in a room of a relative.

"Only God knows where I was," he said.

Kifah Mahmoud in his grocery with pictures of Shiite figures Ali Sistani, Ruhollah Khomeini and Mohammed Sadr. (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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"If I stayed here," he added, "you would have found me in the mass graves by now."

In his store, named after Imam Ali's sword Dhu al-Fiqar, bags of sunflowers, peanuts, pistachios and watermelon seeds were stacked near crates of tomatoes, oranges and potatoes. Mahmoud stood nearby, smiling as he spoke.

"The Shiites have been waiting eagerly for this moment," he said, "the moment that we can seize our rights."

At the sheik's diwan, where a satellite receiver sat near long-necked Bedouin coffeepots, the campaign ground on.

Aidani's list, known as the Islamic Vanguard, is no less religious than Sistani's. One of its banners reads: "The constitution is the holy Koran." Unlike the United Iraqi Alliance, it boasts that it is "100 percent Shiite." Aidani sprinkled his conversations with Koranic passages, promised to represent the south and spoke darkly about the Iranian influence that many see behind the alliance list.

To guests, all of whom made a beeline to greet him first, he insisted that Sistani hadn't actually endorsed the alliance.

"It doesn't represent the Shiites, it doesn't represent Sayyid Sistani, and it doesn't represent the south," he told one. "Sayyid Sistani said he is not supporting any list. He said he blesses all the lists. Whomever you trust, you should vote for them."

Guests nodded, sharing a lavish meal of chicken, rice, pickled vegetables and dates, even if they were unconvinced.

And a while later, after the meal broke up, the 51-year-old sheik offered up his own pessimism.

"The people here listen blindly to the marja," he said. "The people think that by voting for this list, they are obeying God."

He dragged on a locally made Miami cigarette and finished the amply sweetened tea that traditionally follows lunch.

"The truth hasn't reached them yet," he said. "I'm the only one here who can tell the people in the area. It's a big village, and there's a lot of distance to cover." He shook his head. "You need at least two hours to change their mind."

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