Iraq's perilous, pricey campaign

Violence pushes Iraqi politicians to rely on technology instead of shoe leather for Thursday's vote.

Gearing up for their first free parliamentary election since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are watching the battle for ballots in prime time, in an unprecedented campaign that features television among the essential tools to drum up support.

Fear of violence that has targeted both campaign foot soldiers and senior politicians has resulted in relatively little standard canvassing. There are few mass rallies or door-to-door visits, and only rare moments of shaking hands and kissing babies.

Instead, much of the battle for hearts and minds is taking place over the airwaves, where people can watch and listen safely from home.

But that makes campaigning costly - and many Iraqis say that as a result, only parties with outside financing can mount an effective public-relations campaign.

"We don't have the money to pay for these ads, and then we know of other parties that are able to pay $3 million to launch their campaigns," says Mithal al-Alusi, a secular politician who narrowly missed assassination last year after making a controversial visit to Israel, arguing for normalization. Two of his sons were killed instead.

"Yesterday they tried to kill another one of the people on our list," Mr. Alusi says. The members of his political party were shot at by gunmen who were driving in police cars.

So far, five Islamic militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have denounced the elections as a "satanic project," the Associated Press reported Monday, but none have made specific threats to derail the process.

However, security concerns have led Iraq to close its borders and extend a curfew. But despite the edginess among politicians and voters alike, thousands of Shiite supporters in Sadr City of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance gathered Monday in the largest campaign rally so far. It occurred under the tight security of Iraqi forces and followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

An election unregulated

Iraq's election season has turned into something of a free-for-all. There are no limits to how much airtime one can buy, nor on what can be said on air.

It's also permissible to give away free gifts. One of the most high-profile lists, the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella of 14 religious Shiite groups whose main parties now control the government, has been giving out business portfolios and calendars, along with other freebies that are aimed at bolstering their image as capable professionals, rather than fundamentalists.

Laila El-Khafaji, who is the campaign manager for the United Iraqi Alliance, declined to say how much the group had spent on the campaign, but said it was totally dependent "on the support of the people," who were working to carpet the country with banners and stickers. Local singers had been contracted to compose songs, which run regularly on their ads that feature a candle and religious themes.

"We're concentrating on the achievements the coalition has already made, such as passing the constitution," says Ms. El-Khafaji. "We feel we fulfilled the promises by completing the constitution in such a short period of time and passing it."

At the offices of Ad-Diyar Television, a privately owned Iraqi station that has been operating for a year and a half, a sort of enthusiastic pride fills the halls on the eve of the election.

By Tuesday, campaigning must stop. But until now, this has been one of the most sought-after venues. About 28 percent of Iraqis with televisions watch Ad-Diyar, news director Hassan Kamel says, and the station has been careful not to affiliate with any party.

That said, airtime goes to those who can pay. The price is about $10 a second, a high price for most in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi, a one-time friend of the Bush administration and a candidate with enormous visibility ahead of Thursday's national ballot, has about 10 ads running on the station every day, Mr. Kamel says.

"We're moving toward democracy, and what's the meaning of that without a free media?" he asks. "Today, we're afraid of armed terrorists more than we're afraid of the government."

Media matters

Ad-Diyar's Jalal al-Yasari, a chief producer who speaks a comfortable English and is coordinating campaign advertisements for the channel, says some of the tapes the parties turned in were like home videos. "We realize that most people here don't know how to make a campaign. They thought you could just turn on the camera and say something," he says. "And the party which has no funds," he smiles, "the people don't know a thing about them."

Indeed, there are well over 200 lists running, and few of those will make a showing in the 275-seat assembly. One important question, analysts say, will be whether there will be a larger turnout of Sunni voters than in past elections.

A collection of leading Sunni parties, named the Iraqi Consensus Front, chose a stark slogan that papered the walls of the capital Monday: "Our goal is to get the invaders out and to rebuild the country."

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