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Iraq's Shiite Clergy Push To Get Out The Vote

Suppressed Majority Urged to Fulfill Duty

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 -- Maher Hamra pointed to a stack of papers piled high on his desk with the commanding air of being in charge. More than 10,000 leaflets were distributed with the message that participation in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections is "a religious and national duty." The Shiite Muslim sheik also boasted that his office hung 150 banners fluttering along streets with the same message.

Over the past month, Hamra said, that message was uttered daily by turbaned prayer leaders in the 50 mosques in his neighborhood of Kadhimiya, built around Baghdad's most prominent Shiite shrine. Delegates were dispatched to more than 20 high schools. And the elections were the subject of seminars and lectures organized every few days by Hamra's office, which wields religious authority in the name of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's preeminent religious figure.

Sayyid Hashem Awadi, a Shiite cleric, heads the Ghadir Foundation in Baghdad that produces pro-election pamphlets. (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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"We're deciding our destiny," said Hamra, 48, a burly, bearded man with an ever-present cigarette next to a scalding glass of sweetened tea. "We have a responsibility to help build the new Iraq."

As Iraq's first nationwide elections in more than a generation near, Hamra and other Shiite clergy, perhaps the country's most powerful institution, have led an unprecedented mobilization of the Shiite majority population through a vast array of mosques, community centers, foundations and networks of hundreds of prayer leaders, students and allied laypeople. The campaign has become so pitched that many Iraqis may have a better idea of Sistani's view of the election than what the election itself will decide.

The momentum they have created has made a delay in the ballot difficult, if not impossible. Voters will choose a 275-member National Assembly, but powerful groups within Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority are boycotting the election or have called for a postponement so that they can bring calm to restive Sunni regions where insurgents have threatened to attack those taking part.

At the same time, the clergy's campaign has virtually ensured support among Iraq's Shiites for an alliance of about 240 candidates that was brokered this week and has the backing of Sistani. Along with at least token representation of Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities, the slate brings together powerful, mainstream Shiite religious parties allied with the interim government, and also a popular junior cleric, Moqtada Sadr, who until two months ago was leading an armed rebellion against U.S. troops.

"Who wants to boycott, let them boycott. But the elections will happen regardless," said Hamra, sitting in an office with white walls bare but for a portrait of Sistani reading the Koran.

A Show of Power

In its fervor and force, the Shiite campaign reflects some of the most powerful forces shaping a country that has gone in two years from tyranny to invasion to a muddled aftermath perched between war and peace.

The campaign has charted the direction of Iraq's fledgling civil society, at least in Shiite areas, where the clergy, almost unrivaled in their sway and authority, have put a religious stamp on public life. More troublesome, though, the pre-election season has laid bare the sectarian fault lines that pit Hamra and other religious Shiites -- who are eager for power commensurate with their numbers -- against Sunnis suspicious of both U.S. intentions and Shiite ambitions.

"We should not be deceived by people who are trying to keep us away from casting our votes in the ballot boxes, giving the excuses that the polling stations will be bombed," said Laith Haideri, the Shiite prayer leader at Baghdad's revered Buratha Mosque. "It is a duty for everyone to silence these schemes that are calling on people not to attend and participate in these elections."

Haideri is a foot soldier in the clerical campaign. During Friday prayers, he stood at a podium draped in green, holding a gold-colored sword in one hand. In his sermon to 100 worshipers, gathered on red carpets beneath ceiling fans and chandeliers, he voiced what has become a staple of the mosque's sermons in recent weeks: Voting is obligatory.

"We must encourage those fearful and hesitant," he said. "Elections are the best way to bring order, security and an accepted, legitimate government."

Outside the mosque, posters vied for space along the walls. One read, "The enemy of Iraq is the enemy of democracy, justice and elections." Another quoted Sistani: "One vote is like gold, but even more precious."

The January elections are more than just a vote for Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority. For the first time in the country's modern history, Shiites stand at the brink of inheriting power by peaceful means. Sunni Arabs have long monopolized power in the country. They make up about 20 percent of the country's population, although without an accurate census the ethnic and religious proportions are a subject of dispute.

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