BAGHDAD — Iraq's ruling Shiite Muslim parties used the sacred holiday of Ashura on Wednesday to make a pitch to voters, who'll go to the polls Jan. 31 to elect authorities in the 14 of the country's 18 provinces.
On the blast walls lining the main pilgrimage routes from Baghdad to the southern city of Karbala, religious banners commemorating the massacre of Hussein, the murdered grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, competed with posters on which the main Shiite parties advertised their piety.
The poster war bears out how far Iraq has come in the four years since Shiites took control after decades as a subjugated minority, but also how far it has to go.
Many Arab Iraqis say they won't vote based on their sects or their ethnicity this time. The change comes after the former governing Shiite coalition largely disappointed its constituency when sectarian violence ravaged the nation. Electricity remains scarce, and services are minimal.
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Since the last election in 2005, when Shiite candidates ran as a largely united front and banked on religious identity, the community has fractured into political rivalries. The Sadrists, followers of militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr, largely have been marginalized, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — the most powerful Shiite party in the country — and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki are battling for the Shiite south.
The country's highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, instructed Shiites to vote in the provincial elections, but said nothing about whom he supports. Shiite officials say privately that he was angered by their poor performance in office after they'd drawn on his name and image to win.
The result has been vigorous campaigning among Shiite rivals with appeals to religious piety, to the consternation of many voters.
Even Maliki's "Coalition for the State of Law" has jumped into the fray, despite the party's growing appeal among Sunni Muslims and Shiites. Maliki's crackdown on militias led by Sadr and tough bargaining with the United States over a security accord that on its face is highly advantageous to Iraq have given him the aura of a strong central leader.
On Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein's death 1,400 years ago, Maliki fell back to appealing to the religious identity of the majority of Iraqis. Just outside Kadhimiyah, the northern holy Shiite district of Baghdad, where two Shiite imams, or leaders, are buried, pilgrims walked by banners that praised Hussein, and between the images of him were astutely placed campaign banners.
"The messenger of God said: Whoever considers me as his liege (master) then Ali is his liege. I pray to God to uphold those who support him and to let down those who let him down," one banner said, speaking of another of Muhammad's relatives. It was signed in the name of Maliki's party and the party's ballot number, 302.
"Unfortunately it seems that when all is told it is Shiite support Shiite," said Widad Hamid, a Sunni retired high school teacher, reacting to the banner. "I was really going to vote for him."
Other contenders whose posters covered the walls included Ibrahim al Jaafari — a former prime minister and former member of Maliki's party — who leads a party called the National Reform Trend, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — which is calling itself the Martyrs of the Mihrab (which means "places of worship") — and the Independents.
The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — which controls most of the provincial councils in southern Iraq and promotes a federal state with strong provinces and a weak central government — claims to be blessed by Hussein
"Peace be upon you the martyr of Karbala elect the Martyrs of Mihrab and the Independents," said one banner, draped across the walls that snake throughout Baghdad to close off neighborhoods. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's ballot number, 290, marked the black banner. Pilgrims passed by the sign that referred to their revered martyr, who many say influenced the peaceful acts of India's Mohandas Gandhi, a far cry from the history of their sectarian war.
Basheer Aoun al Anbari, 55, was born in Kadhimiyah. As pilgrims passed his storefront Wednesday weeping for the murdered Hussein and his followers, Anbari cursed politicians for using his religion.
"Under the past regime God cursed us. Now God curses us again," he said. "It upsets us that they use our religion. They did not apply what Imam Hussein symbolizes: justice."
At the entrance of the Shiite shrine in Kadhimiyah, women lined up in throngs Wednesday morning, waiting to be searched. They'd been banned from the site for two days for security reasons, out of fears of more incidents like the bombings that have killed at least 64 people in the district in less than two weeks.
"We are scared because of the explosions," said Nawal Sarhan, who rested on a curbside with her children and sister. "We wish to go and visit, but what if there are more bombings?"
Sarhan plans to vote but doesn't know who'll stop the bombings or provide her with support to feed her fatherless children. Her 20-year-old niece smiled shyly.
"I like Maliki," she said. "I like the way he talks."
Sarhan's sister, Umm Rukaya, had only one person in mind.
"Muntathar," she said, referring to Muntathar al Zaidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush last month on the president's last visit to Iraq. Zaidi was detained and beaten, and isn't running for a provincial seat. "He stood up; he is strong. He is a real man."
Despite the desire of many Iraqis to rise above religious divisions during this holy month for Shiites, their own history inevitably plays a role.
"We think he who serves the Prophet Muhammad, serves Imam Hussein and serves the people is the future of Iraq," pilgrim Haider al Hadi said as he walked toward Kadhimiyah. "God and Ahl al Bayt" — the family of the prophet — "will guide us."
(Special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed to this story.)
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