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Candidate Slate Shows Shiites Closing Ranks

Sistani Backs List for Parliamentary Vote

By Anthony Shadid and Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A20

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 -- Under the stewardship of the country's most powerful religious figure, Iraq's fractured Shiite Muslim majority has closed ranks and produced a unified list of candidates for the parliamentary elections set for Jan. 30.

The United Iraqi Alliance, organized under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has brought together mainstream Shiite religious parties allied with the interim government and a junior cleric who until two months ago was committed to armed rebellion, recasting the politics of Iraq's majority population.

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The names of the 240 candidates will be released later this week, said Hussein Shahristani, the nuclear scientist charged by Sistani with organizing the list. But the slate of candidates immediately assumes center stage in an electoral process widely anticipated by Iraq's Shiite population, which has embraced the prospect of gaining power at the ballot box after decades of oppression by the Sunni Muslim-dominated government of Saddam Hussein.

The nationwide election will choose a 275-member National Assembly, which in turn will name a new government and write Iraq's new constitution. Voters will be asked to select an entire slate, and seats in the National Assembly will be distributed proportionate to each slate's share of the total vote.

The United Iraqi Alliance's slate underscores the risks of identity politics in the country. Though it pointedly includes candidates from the country's minority Sunni Arab sect and ethnic Kurdish and Turkmen populations, its overarching Shiite cast -- more than two-thirds of the candidates are Shiite -- reinforces sectarian differences in Iraq, which is divided even on whether elections should go forward as scheduled.

Sunni religious leaders have called for a boycott of the January ballot, and elements of a violent, overwhelmingly Sunni insurgency have warned voters against taking part.

"We consider that this alliance has really made a historic impact on Iraqi society," said Shahristani, 62, who was imprisoned for 12 years by the Hussein government. "This is a historic moment for the birth of a new, democratic and just Iraq."

The 240 names on the United Iraqi Alliance list are drawn from a mix of parties. Independent candidates will account for half of the slate.

The candidates highest on the list, who would be the first to receive seats, will clearly distinguish the slate as Sistani's, Shahristani said.

"People looking at the first few names will immediately recognize that these are people acceptable to him," said Shahristani, who will be among the candidates.

Thirty of the candidates were drawn from followers of Moqtada Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric whose militia battled U.S. forces for more than six months earlier this year.

Sadr, though a junior cleric, is from a family of renowned Shiite clerics. Neither he nor his senior aides will stand as candidates, Sadr officials said. But the inclusion of his movement on the slate does much to prevent a splintering of the Shiite vote.

Sadr's followers, including those in the Mahdi Army militia, emerged as the most formidable manifestation of street politics in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion, channeling the energies of the disenfranchised urban poor across the country's largely Shiite south and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for Sadr's father.

"We hope that they will be more and more engaged in the political process," Shahristani said of the younger Sadr's followers. "We are keen to cooperate with them and help them make that transition into parliament rather than working in the streets."

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