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In Iraq's oil-rich Basra, voting is a way of settling scores

BASRA, Iraq — When masked militiamen kidnapped Aqeel Hatab Urmash on May 15, 2007, they burned him with cigarettes, beat him and shot him twice in the left leg. Doctors amputated his leg above the knee.

Then, Urmash thinks, the same goons blew up his 1993 Toyota with a sticky bomb after he refused to withdraw a claim he'd filed against them. The car was parked outside his home in a Shiite Muslim slum in Basra; he wasn't injured.

On Saturday, Urmash seeks to avenge the torture and bombing: by voting.

"It's a kind of revenge because of what they did to me," said Urmash, 30, resting in his living room, crutches at his hip. "If I don't vote, the thugs will return. So I must vote."

Urmash is among the many voters in Basra who're expected to cast their ballots Saturday for more than 1,000 candidates, filling 35 local posts as part of Iraq's nationwide provincial elections. That vote means different things to residents here, who've endured militiamen, gangsters, rogue cops, common criminals and foreign troops since U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For some, such as Urmash, the ballot box is a democratic way to settle scores. For others, it's a newfound duty in a country that's wobbling from dictatorship toward democracy. For still others, the vote is a painful slap in the face.

Since 2003, Basra has been a battleground. Early in the invasion, the city's outskirts experienced intense fighting between coalition forces and Saddam's paramilitary troops. Last year, the Iraqi army fought the Mahdi Army, the militia led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Hundreds died.

These days, Basra enjoys a semblance of peace after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's crackdown on Shiite militias last year. The city of crumbling streets, cinder-block scenery and heaps of trash is worth fighting for.

"It is a battleground because it is wealthy," Sheik Jassim Ahmed Jassim, a party official with the Sunni Muslim-led Iraqi Islamic Party in Basra. "We have oil."

Basra, a city of some 2.5 million people that's the country's commercial hub because of its harbor and nearby oil fields, is now the site of a different kind of competition.

Candidates from a wide range of parties — from Shiites and Sunnis to secular independents — are vying for votes. Some parties, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, have long had strong relationships with Iran. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq is calling for the south to be a semiautonomous region, similar to Kurdistan in the north. Others, such as the State of Law coalition, affiliated with Maliki and his Dawa party, are pressing for a strong central government.

During the campaign season, Maliki and other political luminaries visited and drew big crowds. Amid the fervor, rumors abounded of political parties paying off voters who live in the slums that ring Basra, which party leaders deny.

"This isn't right. We bet on the people's awareness," said Dhuragham al Ajwadi, an official with the Fadhila (Islamic Virtue) party of provincial Gov. Mohammed al Waili, who's been accused of wide-scale corruption. "Using such a thing is a deception."

Maliki fired Waili in 2007, but Waili refused to cede control over his post or the oil refineries.

Party officials say that the losing candidates might stir up violence, but for now the city was calm.

Campaign banners fluttered above the thoroughfares and posters colored the worn-down buildings. A heavy security presence kept a watchful eye.

To be sure, not every Iraqi will be voting.

Mohammed Fahran lost his son Anhem last year when American troops fired on him as he drove back to Basra, Fahran said. Anhem, 35, died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to U.S. Army records given to the family.

An American military official said an investigation showed that the troops had responded properly to a perceived threat and the action was combat-related, but the military made three payments the family of $2,500 for the loss of Anhem and $2,000 for the vehicle.

"If you give me a mountain of gold it will never replace one drop of blood from my son," Fahran, 67, said from his home just outside Basra. "We are all suffering."

On Saturday, Fahran said, he doesn't plan to leave his home.

"After what we've endured, I don't understand why we should go," he said with his four grandchildren at his side.

Urmash will vote, however, in part because of the attack on him.

He'd just left a wedding when his kidnappers blocked him in traffic. They hooded him, drove him around and locked him in a tiny bathroom. Then his abductors pummeled him and extinguished their cigarettes on him.

"They targeted me because I'm a young man, and I like a good time," said Urmash, who gels his hair and sports a "soul patch" beard on his chin. "I like dating girls."

The kidnappers — who he thinks were part of the Mahdi Army — shot him twice in the leg and ditched him on a deserted road.

On Saturday, he plans to vote for Maliki's party, which he credits for stamping out the militias. The reason is simple: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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