Intrigue, power plays as Iraq campaign season starts

Some are concerned about Iranian influence in process.

Mass graves, war criminals, and Iranian agents: welcome to the campaign trail in Iraq.

Even before he announced his candidacy, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi began using his interim office to kick off his campaign for Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.

Yesterday, Mr. Allawi went public with a formal announcement of his party's list for the elections.

But over the past several days, both Allawi and his deputies have made politically charged announcements - about war-crimes trials, mass graves, and political interference from Iran - calculated to play on Iraqi fears and stir up sentiment against his main competitor.

"One interpretation is that Allawi would make these announcements during the election period because he can make use of them during the campaign season," says Shwan Mahmood, political editor of the independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati. "I think Allawi is afraid for his political future, and he wants to make use of the influence that he has gained during his governing period to guarantee his future election results for himself."

Yesterday marked the official beginning of the electioneering season in Iraq. It was the final deadline for political parties to register their slates of candidates.

But Allawi grabbed headlines the day before when he announced in his weekly address to Iraq's national assembly that his interim government would begin trials of Saddam Hussein's henchmen for war crimes.

Iraqis, impatient for Saddam's trial to begin, have long grumbled that Allawi's interim government is dragging its feet. But yesterday's announcement that trials of Saddam's top henchmen would begin next week took many by surprise.

Officials said that the trials would start with Ali Hassan Al-Majid, the infamous "Chemical Ali" responsible for poison-gas attacks against Kurds and Shiites.

"This is for election purposes," said Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "It's very good propaganda for them if they put him on trial, because he has no supporters. The crimes registered against him are enormous - they cannot be defended."

The interim government's defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, upped the ante yesterday by telling a news conference in Baghdad that the main Shiite slate was an "Iranian list."

The Iranians "are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq," Mr. Shaalan said.

Shaalan was referring to the United Iraqi Alliance, a list of mainly Shiite candidates that was put together at the behest of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's preeminent religious figure. The Shiite list - which most Iraqis refer to simply as "Sistani's list" - is widely believed to be the front-runner in the elections so far, so it will be significant competition for Allawi.

"I cannot speak to what Shaalan is saying, because he is always making fiery declarations," says Mr. Jawad. "But Shaalan is with [interim Iraqi President Gahzi] Al-Yawer - in other words, he is with Allawi."

The full Shiite list has not yet been revealed, and Iraq's independent electoral commission won't announce the candidates until Dec. 20. But a group of Shiite politicians announced last week that it was top-heavy with political figures who have close ties to Iran. No. 1 is said to be Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric who lived in Iran for over 20 years.

Also high on the list is Ahmed Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite with close ties to Iran.

Mr. Chalabi is not very popular in Iraq - in a recent State Department survey of Iraqis, his unpopularity ratings ranked just below that of Mr. Hussein and his top deputy, Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri. Chalabi's inclusion in the list's Top 10 spurred suspicions of Iranian influence in the Shiite slate.

"Mr. Chalabi has taken another boat, from the American boat to the Iranian boat," said Sheikh Fatih Kashif Al-Ghitta, a moderate Shiite cleric who removed his name from the list. "So if he is in the Top 10, that means that there is a very big influence from the regimes around us."

Iranian meddling is a sore subject for most Iraqis, many of whom fought in the bloody eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. It's an especially touchy issue for Sunnis, many of whom are wary of an election that will almost certainly bring a Shiite government to power.

Last month, a group of mainly Sunni political parties led by Sunni elder statesmen Adnan Pachachi asked for a delay of six months to boost voter participation in violence-torn Sunni parts of Iraq. Both Allawi and President Bush announced that there would be no delay - and so did former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.

"We find a coherence between Iran and the Americans that is surprising to me," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science and the leader of an Iraqi nationalist group that is boycotting the elections. "I consider this as a true sign of interference into Iraqi affairs - not by Bush alone, but by Rafsanjani."

But the use of government officials to blast Allawi's political opponents also raises ethical questions. With Iraq's security in shambles, Allawi's competitors will find it very difficult to conduct grassroots political campaigns.

"Shaalan's announcement is mainly to do with the fear of the current Iraqi government that Iranian influence will affect the new Iraqi democracy," said Mahmood. "Maybe Shaalan's and Allawi's parties are afraid that Iran's meddling will affect the results of the elections."

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