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Iraqi voters show preference for can-do over creed

An emerging backlash against rule by religious parties gives opening to technocrats in Jan. 31 provincial elections.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2009

Mohamed al-Rubeiy (l.) greets supporters outside his Baghdad office.

Jane Arraf for the Monitor

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Mohamed al-Rubeiy, the image of a prosperous businessman in a dark blue suit and gold watch, beams from thousands of posters plastered on walls advertising his run for a seat in Iraq's provincial elections.

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The liberal, middle-aged businessman is running a campaign that he says was inspired by Barack Obama – blending American-style tactics with traditional Iraqi politics – and is emblematic of what appears to be a groundswell against rule by religious parties.

"There has been a backlash," says Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and now a member of parliament. Mr. Rubeiy is affiliated with his party. "There has been so much corruption because the religious parties got people who were not qualified to run the ministries.... It's really been a bitter disappointment in some places because they say we voted for them and they did nothing."

An Iraqi government-funded opinion poll recently found that nearly one-third of voters surveyed listed improving local services as their biggest priority. Almost half preferred secular over religious candidates.

Rubeiy is one of more than 4,400 candidates competing for 440 provincial council seats in 14 (out of 18) Iraqi provinces. The vote, with its much larger participation by Sunni parties than the last election, is expected to redraw Iraq's political map in many places and pave the way for a redistribution of power in national elections at the end of the year.

Rubeiy is counting on the religious backlash – and studying Mr. Obama's political playbook. "I was very affected by President Obama when he spoke with people in the debates," says the Romanian-educated engineer, brimming with enthusiasm. So affected, he challenged one of his rivals, the mayor of Baghdad, to debate him. Thursday's face-off, he says, was the first of its kind in Baghdad.

"Obama, in his debate, brought many people in his direction and when he talked about change ... [and] that's what I needed to start my campaign for the provincial council," says Rubeiy.

It also led to the slogan on the larger-than-life posters being unrolled by some of the 500 young volunteers at his office on a recent afternoon in Baghdad's Karrada district: "Vote for the path of change."

"I pay from my pocket – I don't put money in my pocket," he tells a meeting of more than 100 sheikhs in the Zafaraniya district, a message he will deliver dozens more times before the Jan. 31 election. "I didn't ask for your votes in 2005, but I need them now."

A liberal Shiite, first appointed by US authorities as head of the Karrada City Council in 2003 and then elected to the post, Rubeiy had a dismal showing when he ran for provincial council four years ago. He's learned since then.

"I ran in the 2005 elections as an independent liberal and got 10,000 votes. I needed 36,000," says Rubeiy. This election, he is still an independent but affiliated with a list of candidates symbolically headed by Ayad Allawi, the first head of the US-installed provisional government in 2003.