Women make pitch to Iraqi voters

In Najaf, women and tribal leaders work the streets, promising progress and getting out the vote.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Making grandiose promises like any seasoned Western politician, the women candidates of southern Iraq are learning quickly about turning rhetoric into votes before Sunday's landmark election.

"The election process is really new, and it's the first time we have experienced such an election," says Nawal Abdul Radha, a Dawa Party candidate and accountant, draped head to toe in a black robe, her face framed by a purple-red scarf.

So Mrs. Radha and her fellow candidates took to the streets of Najaf - now relatively calm after last summer's fierce fighting between US forces and Shiite militants - to embrace Iraq's Jan. 30 vote.

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"Now we are going to people, talking to them about our programs," says Radha at a forum organized by US officials. "I talk to them and say I am going to provide job opportunities, I'm going to help widows and poor people."

In a vote where one third of the candidates on 111 lists for the new 275-seat parliament are required to be women, these are voices unaccustomed to a political airing in Iraq.

"Actually, our families are afraid," says Radha. "My family is calling me every other hour to see how I'm doing. But we believe that our city and province are safe, and I'm moving from place to place alone. I'm not afraid."

But in much of the south, candidates have been able to cast off the violent threats that are clouding the election in Baghdad and Sunni-dominated areas. They are mixing their new political freedom with tribal tradition, and calling the outcome democracy.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurfi says every step has been taken to prevent attacks, including deploying 15,000 police and Iraqi forces in the city and around 236 polling stations. In the past week, those units have been conducting night raids to arrest known troublemakers.

"Some people don't want to live in this new country, and participate in democracy, human rights and freedom," says Mr. Zurfi. "Even those people will find out later that they are making a big mistake by threatening people, killing people."

"It's not about Sunni and Shiite, it's about politics and power," adds Zurfi, noting that Najaf officials under Saddam Hussein did not come from Najaf, but from the regime strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi. "Now they have very limited power. They are fighting back, to take the same opportunity they had before. This is not the [path] of the new Iraq."

Instead, that path leads through the women candidates - who, unlike many running for office, are willing to be photographed and named - and through the palm-forested village of Sulayiyah, a 45-minute drive away. There, tribal chiefs show just as much enthusiasm for the process, albeit in a more traditional way.

Subgroups of the large Bani Hassan tribe marched into the compound of the newly anointed tribal chief on Tuesday, waving red and white tribal flags and chanting poetry of love, devotion, and wise leadership.

"We don't need just any politician, but one who will look after our farms, our people and our faith," one man shouted above the din, spraying spittle in his enthusiasm to show his support.

The mustachioed Sheikh Muthanna al-Hatem al-Hassan, who is running for parliament, promised to look after the tribe from a seat of power in Baghdad.

"What's important to us is Iraq, and what we need is one Iraq only," says Sheikh Muthanna, with the practiced, good-news air of a politician. "This is the first step, and like every first step, this one will be hard. Sure, there will be some trouble, but I'm sure, in the end everything will be better."

While Muthanna has a built-in support base of hundreds of thousands of Bani Hassan tribesmen, the women candidates in Najaf have to sell potential voters on their plans and integrity.

While many can tick off the number of relatives killed by anti-Shiite repression under Mr. Hussein, they also boast advanced degrees and years of community service that give them standing here.

"This kind of election is not going to happen every day," says Batoul Farouk, a candidate on the Dawa provincial list who holds a master's degree in Islamic Science and is head of a Najaf women's association.

A legitimate elected government, she says, can "close the door against the terrorists."

"The election is the only exit from these problems we have in Iraq - there is no other solution," says lawyer Najla Mahdi Bhar, who is a candidate on the Iraqi Future Gathering Party list.

For the national vote, all these candidates support the list backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, No. 169. While Mr. Sistani has telegraphed support for a nation not run by the clergy, as in Iran, some candidates expect there to be more religion in government.

"Iraq is an Islamic country, and it doesn't hurt that we will rely upon the Koran to write our constitution," says Nisreen al-Fatlawi, a candidate of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), which was formed in Iran for Iraqi exiles more than 20 years ago.

"All of the clerics are politicians," says Fatin Khawam Shirali, a physiology professor and SCIRI candidate, naming several. "They can lead the country better than anyone else. Religion does not need to be isolated from politics."

The comments sparked debate about how far mosque and state should be separated, and whether Iran's theocracy should serve as a model.

"It doesn't hurt that we will take the positives from the Iran model, and apply them to Iraq," says Ms. Fatlawi, "but it does not mean that it will be exactly the same experiment in Iraq."

"As Iraqis, we have our independent traditions," adds Muna Jabar al-Najar, a finance officer at Kufa University. "Of course, the Iranians are not going to reflect their experiment on our people."

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