Where candidates hide, one Iraqi hits the stump

In a country where some candidates address the electorate only from behind blast-proof walls and others are so stealthy that their names are secret, Sadr City's Fatah al-Sheikh stands out.

In an election season with few campaign rallies and fewer public appearances by candidates, Mr. Sheikh incongruously displays all of the techniques of a Western politician. If a baby were around, he would surely kiss it. Here on Baghdad's meanest streets, he beams for a TV camera and backslaps passersby.

"Why should I be afraid?'' asks Sheikh, a onetime spokesman for a militant cleric who now heads his own list of candidates in Iraq's Jan. 30 election. "The people here know us and respect us. They know we'll fight and die with them."

The residents of Sadr City, an impoverished sprawl of 2 million Shiite Muslims on the northeast edge of Baghdad, have known much about fighting and dying over the years, and their sense of grievance and suspicion of outsiders is something that Sheikh is hoping to tap into. With nearly 10 percent of Iraq's population, the district is a rich electoral prize.

Iraq's election will be for a 275-member national assembly that will write a new constitution. With 111 different party lists, many with confusingly similar names, most get-out-the-vote efforts stress the numbers the lists have been assigned for the ballot.

Though turnout is expected to be low among the Sunni Arab minority who have always dominated Iraqi politics although they are only about 20 percent of the population, the country's Shiite Arabs are eager to vote and see the election as their chance to redress their historic omission from the country's politics.

The likely Shiite ascendancy is one of the reasons that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the Jordanian-born Al Qaeda affiliate who has taken responsibility for many of Iraq's suicide attacks and assassinations - is working so hard to undermine the elections.

Radical Sunnis like Mr. Zarqawi view Shiites as apostates. In an audiotape attributed to him released on Sunday, Zarqawi called the vote "a wicked trap designed to put the [Shiites] into the seat of power." Last Friday, car bombs struck a Shiite mosque in Baghdad during prayers and a Shiite wedding south of the capital, killing at least 25.

Sheikh and 132 members of his electoral list - all from Sadr City - are diehard supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric whose Mahdi Army tied up US forces in this neighborhood and in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf last September until a truce was brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected cleric. The city was renamed in honor of Sadr's father from Saddam City after the dictator's fall.

Sheikh hopes to bring a strictly Islamic constitution to the country, and says the principal job for Iraq's new leaders should be to prepare the way for the Mahdi, a legendary figure that many Shiites believe will one day come to earth and redeem mankind's sins.

"Mr. Moqtada is the one most responsible for getting things ready for the Mahdi; the first step was recreating the Mahdi Army,'' says Sheikh, who was jailed twice during Hussein's regime for editing an underground Shiite religious newspaper. "What we want now is a constitution that holds to the principles of Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, a constitution drawn from Islamic history, the holy book, and the traditions of the Prophet."

Sadr says clerics should play a major role in politics and occasionally snipes at Mr. Sistani and other mainstream Shiite preachers who would like to see Islam influence Iraqi laws, but who think it's inappropriate for clerics to be directly involved in politics.

Officially, Sadr is sitting the election out. Though he encourages Shiites to vote in what is likely to be the first chance for the country's Shiite majority to take power since Iraq was founded, he also expressed ambivalence about an election taking place under the auspices of the US and the interim leadership, many of whom he's attacked as American puppets.

"In principle, we are 100 percent for elections,'' says Ahmed al-Qurayshi, a Sadr aide. "But we insist that votes are cast and counted fairly. We feel the US might be trying to engineer a result behind the curtains."

Even so, Sadr appears to be hedging his bets. In addition to the list headed by Sheikh, leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance list, a coalition of Shiite religious movements that has the support of Sistani, say about 10 percent of their candidates are Sadr supporters.

The presence of the Sadr supporters' list underscores the wide range of views among Shiites, and the likely wrangling that will take place once a largely Shiite parliament sits. The Sistani list has everything from secular politicians to, at its fringes, supporters of an Iranian-style theocracy.

Sheikh says he expects to sweep the vote in Sadr City. "Look at them - they're all ready to fight,'' he says, smiling out from a close-cropped beard.

But combing Sadr City's streets suggest he may be disappointed. "We have the greatest respect and admiration for Moqtada and his men,'' says Kassim Ghali, a 23-year old with slicked back hair. "Everyone knows that they were the ones to stand up to the Americans, but I'm voting for 169 - the Sistani list."

Hamoodi al-Ikabi, an unemployed man, says he'll do the same. "All that we suffered for 35 years under Saddam makes it our duty to vote,'' he says. "Security is good and we're safe here. We're voting."

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