with Iran. As campaigning was launched last week, a coalition of leading Shiite parties called the United Iraqi Alliance began as firm favourites for the poll on January 30. The Sunday Times
Stephen Grey, Basra
AN alliance of religious parties that want to turn Iraq into an Islamic state is facing a growing challenge in the countrys election and is accused of having secret links with Iran.
As campaigning was launched last week, a coalition of leading Shiite parties called the United Iraqi Alliance began as firm favourites for the poll on January 30.
At least 60% of Iraqis are Shiites. With much of the Sunni population threatening to boycott the election, the coalition that was pulled together on the orders of the revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has looked unbeatable.
Last week there was evidence that even in the Shiite heartlands including the second city of Basra the coalition is far from unshakable. It is being undermined by fears of Iranian influence and tribal loyalties to local candidates.
The coalition is spearheaded by the formerly Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, spent years in Iran.
It also includes the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the Iraqi National Congress whose leader, Ahmed Chalabi, was accused by American officials of helping Iranian intelligence, a claim he vigorously denied.
Most Shiites are determined that the vote should go ahead regardless of Iraqs insurgency. After centuries of domination by more educated Sunnis, they believe their time has come.
While they remain loyal to Sistani, it is unclear how far that allegiance will translate into support for Iranian-backed religious parties demanding much stricter Islamic laws.
As registration closed for candidates, it emerged that at least eight coalitions will oppose the United Iraqi Alliance, in addition to 73 other independent parties. Among the main challengers is the Iraqi List, led by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister. Despite his links to America, Allawi has secured strong backing for action taken against Sunni insurgents in the north, including last months attack on the rebel stronghold of Falluja.
Everyone is going to vote in this election because it represents our freedom, said Maki Abdullah, a Basra trader who echoed the sentiments of many.
I will definitely support Allawi because he is a strong man who is dealing with the bad people.
The suspicion of other voters about candidates such as Allawi, who returned from exile after the fall of Saddam Hussein and joined the American-appointed interim government, may also yield support for independent candidates.
In Basra, SCIRI and its militia, the Badr brigade, have a strong grip on local government. They also control much of the British-trained police and are thought to have murdered dozens of former members of Saddams Baath party.
Many citizens oppose such shows of force and are furious to see pictures of Ayatollah Khomenei, the late revolutionary Iranian leader, displayed in a police station.
How can they revere someone who put this city under siege and bombed us? asked one unemployed engineer, referring to attacks on Basra in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
As one senior British Army officer said last week: In Basra, Iran is seen as shorthand for anything bad. Every crime or explosion is blamed on an Iranian outsider. Yet one way or another so many people have Iran in their background. Its going to be a big factor here.
The British are unsure of the degree to which the Iranians are interfering in Iraqi politics, although they suspect that many agents of the Revolutionary Guards are active.
In an indication of how heated the campaigning may become, Hazem Shalaan, the Iraqi defence minister, claimed that the Sistani-backed list was composed of Iranian agents.
They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics rule in Iraq, he said.
In Basra, Amer Al Faazi, a leading member of the Dawa Islamic Movement, said it was obvious that many politicians were receiving cash from the Iranians. They have been supporting these people so they can control our future.
Amer is planning to use western-style election techniques from posters and leaflets to election meetings, door-to-door canvassing and TV broadcasts.
However, he said that Iraqs election would have its own unique flavour. As well as his party politiccal allegiance, he is also a leader of the 140,000- strong Beni Amer tribe. Of course they will all vote for me because of my tribal relationship. Its not like in Europe, he said.
Muzahim al Tamimi, another tribal leader, has put together a list of independent candidates including doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers to challenge the religious leaders and the established political parties. He is expecting intimidation by Islamic militias but believes that he can attract votes from those who are fed up with the corruption and robbery of political leaders.
Although many have warned of violence, Basra is relatively peaceful after a summer in which the army fought pitched battles with Shiite militants.
The threat here has reduced because most of the political players in this city have become engaged in the political process, said Brigadier Paul Gibson, commander of British forces in Basra and Amara. Everyone is excited by this election and getting involved in planning their tactics.