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.
Others argue the marjaiya's orders were deliberately ambiguous. For the January election, the marjaiya specifically endorsed the main Shiite slate. For this election, the clerics claimed neutrality and ordered religious symbols off campaign posters. Then, as talk of secular tickets like Allawi's grew, the spokesman for the marjaiya's top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, announced recently that Sistani had instructed Iraqis to vote for a strong slate and for candidates who are God-fearing.
To many here, the only slate that meets those qualifications is the main Shiite list.
That frustrates other candidates, such as Ibrahim Bahr Uloum, a prominent Najaf resident and the government's oil minister, who is running on a separate list. "The voice of the marjaiya will cover everything. That's a fact," Bahr Uloum acknowledged, slumping in a chair at the end of a 15-hour day of campaigning Saturday. "But show me something written from them. It's not there. The details are up to everyone's interpretation."
Because of the confusion, Sistani's office issued another statement Sunday. The wording of the statement did not mention religion, but urged people to vote for "those who are trusted on their basics."
Sistani intended to be vague, said Mohammad Khuzai, a white-turbaned spokesman for Bashir Najafi, one of the four grand ayatollahs who make up the religious authority. Sitting cross-legged and erect in a plain office, Khuzai acknowledged that "there may be some negatives" in the performance of the Shiite candidates and that Sistani wished to distance himself if the government disappoints Iraqis in the next four years.
"The marjaiya is standing behind a curtain," said Khuzai. "The marjaiya can't assume the slate will do 100 percent good deeds" while in office.
But to many Shiites in the countryside, the message is clear: Vote for 555, the number of the Shiite slate.
"Five-Five-Five is our religion," said Azhar Nadeem, 25, as she and her sister helped their father sift rice outside Abu Skhair, where low earthen-brick homes are tucked beneath palm trees, and a golden sun illuminates rice stalks piled to feed lambs and donkeys.
"We want a strong government, a stable government," said her father, Nadeem Ali, 55, as he scooped rice grain into a large bowl to sift out dirt and husks. An erratic electric supply had left the rice planted in June dry too often, and the harvest this month yielded half of what he had hoped, he said. "Right now, we are like the tides in the sea, with no stability. We want a stable government to give us electricity."
Some fear that the Shiite list is unlikely to bring stability. They see the elections as accelerating the drift toward a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish partition of the country. They also see the prospect of feuding among candidates on the Shiite slate. The ticket includes two main Shiite factions that as recently as August faced each other in a gun battle in Najaf, leaving at least six dead.
"We didn't really want to support this list," said Mustafa Yacubi, 32, a representative of the faction of Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious cleric who fought both the Americans and his Shiite rivals, but reluctantly agreed to put candidates on the joint slate. Yacubi, recently freed from U.S. custody, spoke at his Najaf home, a computer on one side of his chair, a pistol on the other.
The ticket, Yacubi said, "has the negative aspect of representing the current government. If you look at their term, you see no development. People are not happy with that."
Anwar Shimirti, an official of the rival group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, declined to discuss the split among Shiites. He preferred to focus on Allawi's party, which he said "will bring the Saddamists and Baathists back into the government." He defended the election of his party's candidates based on religion.
"We believe religion is policy," Shimirti said. "We are the majority. Don't we have a right to make our religion the policy?"