“I’ll certainly vote for the Shia candidates,” said Nabil Hassan Majid, a middle-aged Shia grocer in the Jadriyah district of Baghdad. “It is we who suffered and were oppressed under Saddam’s regime and now it is our chance to rule.”
On the last day of campaigning before the Iraqi election, 1,000 Sunni clerics called on their community to vote. Their appeal was marred, however, by the murder of a Sunni candidate, Mizhar al-Dulaimi, who was shot dead as he campaigned in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
The parliamentary election in Iraq tomorrow is expected to confirm that Shia Arabs are the dominant community after centuries of rule by the Sunni. They can win because at least 15 to 16 million of the 25 to 26 million Iraqis are Shia Muslims while there are only about five million Sunni Arabs and five million Kurds.
It is a historic change. Immediately after the American invasion in 2003, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the immensely influential Shia clerical leader, insisted that the occupiers hold an election, which they were initially reluctant to do. They knew that the Shia majority would be the inevitable victors.
The strongest party coalition in the election is the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the so-called clerics’ list, which had 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly and won 48 per cent of the votes at the last election on January 30 compared to 25 per cent for the Kurds. The Shia and Kurdish strength was exaggerated by the Sunni Arab boycott, but it is still their candidates who are likely to carry the day.
The Shia clerical parties have a very strong hand. They already form the government, along with the Kurds. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of the Dawa party, is the Prime Minister. While Ayatollah Sistani has not openly backed the UIA, his office has warned voters against secular parties and small parties. For the pious Shia voter, and most are religious, this does not leave much else to vote for aside from the UIA.
“I expect the Shia religious parties will get about 110 to 115 seats in the new parliament,” said one political observer in Baghdad. “They will be in a commanding position.” He ticked off their advantages. The largest party in the coalition is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) under Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which already controls provincial councils in nine out of 18 Iraqi provinces. It has its powerful militia, the Badr Organisation, and is backed by Iran.
In this election the UIA is joined by the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, whose Medhi Army militia twice fought US forces in Najaf and across southern Iraq last year. He in effect controls Sadr City, the great Shia slum with a population of 2.5 million, in east Baghdad.
It is not that the Jaafari government has been particularly successful. Baghdad is as dangerous as it was a year ago. Kidnapping and crime are rife. There was a pre-election surge in electricity supply this week but there are continual shortages. Abed al-Ruda, a Shia engineer, admitted that Shia parties had “not managed to do anything for the people, but then they didn’t have much time”. He was still going to vote for them because “I am hopeful for the future of Iraq and the Shia will be the people who will rule this country”.
Not everybody is so forgiving. Some Shia see the triumph of “555” – as the United Iraqi Alliance list is universally known – as opening the door to a clerical state and civil war. Mohamed Haki Daoud, a student, said he was planning to vote for Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, as a secular Shia who could hold Iraq together: “He stands against the break-up of Iraq.” In Baghdad there is a secular nationalist vote but Allawi’s hopes may founder because it is not large and the provincial cities are largely under the control of his enemies. It is too dangerous for him to campaign in many areas. When he went to the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf he was attacked by hostile worshippers whom he said had tried to kill him. Many Sunni Arabs sympathise with him but say they want to maximise Sunni influence by voting for Sunni parties.
Allawi’s opponents portray him as Saddam Hussein reborn. Posters show a figure with half his face and half Saddam’s face. Umm Hamid, an elderly woman, said she and her entire extended family would vote for the clerical coalition. Then she chanted: “No, No, for Allawi! No, No for the new Baath in Iraq again!”