By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 8, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 7 -- Tucked into a bunker-like former headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, a type of war room unfamiliar in this country buzzed with life Wednesday. Halfway through a 14-hour shift, campaign workers from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group that boycotted the country's previous elections in January, munched rice and kebabs, their faces lit by computer screens.
Across town, hundreds of black-clad followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr -- who decried balloting 10 months ago as something imposed under American occupation -- beat their backs with chains and stomped across a large poster of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. Sadr's political wing has joined forces with the alliance of Shiite religious parties that leads Iraq's current government and opposes Allawi's secular movement.
As Iraqis nationwide prepare to go to the polls for the third time this year on Dec. 15 -- this time for a new parliament -- candidates and political parties of all stripes are embracing politics, Iraqi style, as never before and showing increasing sophistication about the electoral process, according to campaign specialists, party officials and candidates here.
"It is like night and day from 10 months ago in terms of level of participation and political awareness," said a Canadian election specialist with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a group affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party that is working to ease Iraq's transition to democracy. The institute, which has provided free campaign training to more than 100 Iraqi parties and describes its programs as nonpartisan, granted a reporter access to its employees and training sessions on the condition that no one on its staff be named.
Evidence of political evolution is plastered all over Baghdad's normally drab concrete blast walls and hung on lampposts at nearly every major intersection: large, colorful, graphically appealing posters conveying a wide variety of punchy messages.
Television and radio airwaves are replete with slick advertisements costing anywhere from $1,250 per minute on al-Sumariya, a Lebanon-based satellite station focused on Iraq, to $5,000 per minute on al-Arabiya, a network based in the United Arab Emirates that is popular across the Arab world.
In one 30-second spot, a smartly dressed and smiling Allawi -- normally known for his brusque demeanor -- is shown seated on a stool in a dimly lit studio. "My faith is in Iraq," he tells the camera, to underscore his secularism.
Even the arrival of American-style negative campaigning is evidence of a growing political sophistication, the election trainers said. In recent days posters have started to appear in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in north Baghdad, bearing the slogan "vote for the Baathist slate," along with a composite photograph of a face -- half Allawi's and half Hussein's. Allawi was a member of Hussein's Baath Party until the mid-1970s, when he joined Iraq's opposition.
In January, most candidates outside the dominant few parties largely eschewed campaigning, fearing they could be kidnapped or assassinated. Now, even long shots are getting into the act. One day this week, National Democratic Institute instructors explained get-out-the-vote techniques to a dozen members of the Free Iraq Gathering, a new coalition that "probably won't get many more votes than you see in that room," according to an institute employee.
In another room, a Canadian taught workers from the Iraqi National Congress, the party led by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, how to monitor polling stations on election day to prevent cheating and ensure their supporters are able to vote.
"You are the eyes of the party," he said, warning them to look out for husbands trying to cast ballots for their wives or tribal leaders seeking to vote for their members. "Your party may have the best solutions for Iraq, but it doesn't mean a thing unless people come and put a ballot in the box. You have to think, I have seen Mustafa and Mazen vote, but if someone is missing, maybe you call them up and offer them a ride to the polls."
As in January, the specter of election-related violence still hangs over Iraq. Insurgents have distributed leaflets throughout Anbar province, the center of the Sunni-led insurgency, threatening to kill anyone who attempts to vote. An Iraqi Islamic Party candidate was gunned down with two party workers on a highway west of Baghdad late last month. Allawi escaped unscathed from an attack by armed demonstrators in Najaf during a visit there Sunday, and two days later, a rocket-propelled grenade struck his party's Najaf office.
In several cities in the Kurdish-populated north on Tuesday, demonstrators believed to be loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party burned down several local headquarters of a rival party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, whose members recently withdrew from a KDP-led election coalition. Four party workers were reportedly killed in the incidents.
Because of this, several candidates and party workers said, they cannot apply much of the advice they get from foreign election workers. At one recent session, candidates were encouraged to knock on doors or approach people in restaurants or cafes to talk about issues. They were told to write letters and send them to everyone they know, outlining their platforms.
"You could get killed . . . and we don't have mail there," said Khalid Madhia, a Free Iraqi Gathering candidate from Fallujah. "But it is much easier this time. Before, we were running while we were hiding. We don't have to hide anymore."
Instead of retail politics, candidates rely largely on less direct means of contacting voters: Most major parties now have interactive Internet sites that provide information about platforms. Several parties employ cell phone text-messaging technology that allows them to send messages to hundreds of potential supporters at once. Funding comes from dues and donations paid by members.
Religious leaders are also playing a prominent role in the campaign through networks of affiliated mosques, where imams divide their sermons into a religious discussion and a political discourse that often touches on the coming vote.
At the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters, hundreds of cardboard boxes full of posters waited to be taken by truck to regional outposts in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. In another room, video editors scrutinized the latest version of the party's television ad asking voters to help "end the U.S. occupation." The spot runs continuously on an in-house satellite station.
The party had originally decided to compete in last January's elections despite a broad Sunni Arab boycott, but it eventually withdrew. Sunni Arabs, who account for an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's population, held most top positions in the Hussein government but have seen their influence erode significantly since his ouster.
"Everyone here is excited. The mood and busyness are so much better than before when we just waited to see what would happen," said B.B. Abdul Qadir, an Iraqi Islamic Party official who said his party's goal was to win 60 seats in the 275-seat parliament. "Now we can't wait for the voting to start."
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.