Village Sheiks Look To Clerics on Vote

Jamil Jabbar Fatlawi, a village sheik, said the villagers will vote for the Shiite religious candidates despite disappointment with the current government.
Jamil Jabbar Fatlawi, a village sheik, said the villagers will vote for the Shiite religious candidates despite disappointment with the current government. (Photos By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 12, 2005

ABU SKHAIR, Iraq -- The village sheik sat by a fire pit in the village meeting house. Tea kettles, with spouts like the beaks of birds, were cold. He ticked off his grievances with the Iraqi government: Electricity comes only a few hours each day, not enough to power the pumps needed to flood the rice fields. The water in the irrigation canal is too low. Food rations, a mainstay under Saddam Hussein, came only four months in the last 12, and not much was in them.

Above him, on the reed arches and woven ceiling, smoke from a thousand fires had left its mark. Each night, the village men sit on carpets around the fire and discuss their problems. The harvest was bad. People are poor. But on the question of whether they would vote to change the government, the sheik said no.

"No, of course not," said Jamil Jabbar Fatlawi, 53, a thin man whose skin the sun and wind have turned leathery. "Our religious leaders say we should vote this way. If we don't follow, we are not Muslim."

Fatlawi's declaration, echoed time and again in the countryside of southern Iraq, is evidence that national elections Thursday appear destined to produce a four-year government in which religious Shiites continue to have the most powerful voice, an outcome far from the original aim of the U.S. invasion.

Dissatisfaction with the current Shiite-led government is heard in conversations around diwaniya fires and when villagers rest while sifting rice from the harvest. But a veiled signal by the Shiites' highest religious authorities, based 15 miles south of here in Najaf, has solidified support for the main slate of Shiite candidates, the United Iraqi Alliance, which has the largest bloc in the current legislature.

"There's been a dramatic change," said Ahmed Fatlawi, an official of a human rights organization in Najaf monitoring the campaign. "Two months ago, there was a lot of talk about replacing the current government. Now that is gone."

That shift is bad news for secular candidates, such as former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. An undertow of grumbling that the government elected in January has done little to improve life for Iraqis had fueled speculation of an upset in the elections. Unhappy voters, the theory went, would reject the religious-based candidates in favor of those like Allawi, who campaigns on promises of tough government and national unity.

But if the Shiites rally to support the incumbents' slate, their numbers will ensure that the Shiites remain the biggest bloc in the parliament. That in turn would mean another division of the government pie among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds, with the prime minister's post likely going to the Shiites.

"We're in a tough battle," said Abdulal Waheed Issawi, the Najaf campaign chief for Allawi. In the office next to his, fresh plaster covered a two-foot-diameter hole punched through the wall by a rocket-propelled grenade two days earlier. Last week during a campaign stop, Allawi was chased out of Najaf by a crowd throwing rocks and shoes, and firing guns. On Issawi's desk is a letter, written in red ink, threatening to kill a shop owner who had put up a poster of the candidate.

Issawi's father, sheik of the village of Al-Issa, eight miles from Najaf, said no one in the village would vote for Allawi. Everyone, he said, would follow what he believes are the wishes of the Iraqi Shiites' chief religious figures, whose authority is called the marjaiya , to vote for the Shiite slate.

"We don't take any step without the orders of the marjaiya," said Waheed Abud, 78. He sat, formally dressed, in the Al-Issa diwaniya hall lined with pictures of the prophet Ali and a framed list of villagers killed by Hussein. The other village elders sat in a rectangle around him, their amber prayer beads clicking softly. They nodded and waved away flies.

He excused the government's failures as the result of a short time in office. And he said it has been undermined by political opponents and the United States, which does not want an Iraqi government with close ties to Shiite Iran.

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