Politics, Iraqi Style: Slick TV Ads, Text Messaging and Gunfire
The New York Times
By Robert F. Worth and Edward Wong; Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting for this article.

BAGHDAD, Iraq — After putting up 100,000 posters across Iraq to promote his political party, Hamid Kifai discovered this week that they had all been torn down, even the ones on the front of his own campaign headquarters in the south.

“They have made it impossible for us to compete,” said Mr. Kifai, a stocky, talkative Shiite candidate who spent his entire $50,000 war chest on the posters and has nothing left. “This is not democracy.”

It is democracy, but in a distinctly Iraqi style. This country is in the final days of a campaign that is at once more ruthless and more sophisticated than anything yet seen here.

Candidates have been killed, even as slick television spots run throughout the day, showing office-seekers who soberly promise to defeat terrorism and revive the economy. Cellphone users routinely get unexpected text messages advertising one candidate or another. Thousands of posters decorate the capital’s gray blast walls, including one that shows a split face — half Saddam Hussein, half Ayad Allawi — in a blunt effort to smear Mr. Allawi, a former prime minister, and his secular coalition.

“Who does this man remind you of?” the poster asks.

In a sense, it is the first full-scale political contest here since the fall of Mr. Hussein. The Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the January election, are now campaigning fiercely, and voter turnout is expected to be considerably higher as a result. All told, 226 political groups will compete in the elections, representing more than 7,000 candidates.

The winners will form Iraq’s first full-term government since the war began, and face the task of unifying an increasingly fractious and violent nation. Any American plan to reduce troop levels will depend on the success of that effort.

So far, the campaign has been as turbulent as any endeavor in Iraq. In the past two weeks alone, 11 people associated with Mr. Allawi’s group have been killed, including one of its leading candidates in southern Iraq. On Tuesday, gunmen stormed five northern offices belonging to the Kurdistan Islamic Union, killing two party members and wounding 10. It is often hard to distinguish political killings from the terrorism that has become a part of daily life here, but in both cases, the parties have accused rivals of carrying out the attacks.

“I think these negative tactics will backfire,” said Azzam Alwash, an ebullient 47-year-old civil engineer who is co-director of the campaign for Mr. Allawi’s coalition. Like almost all of his counterparts in these elections, he has no prior experience in the field, though he oversees 80 campaign workers with a budget of $2.5 million. He toils in a “war room” in Mr. Allawi’s Baghdad headquarters, where staff members work 18-hour days and coordinate satellite offices in all of Iraq’s provinces.

“Our posters got pulled down too, so we decided the best way was with TV, radios and newspapers,” Mr. Alwash said. Like many other groups, Mr. Allawi’s has its own newspaper and enough money to pay for plenty of television and radio time. About 6 of the nearly 20 Iraqi television stations — and about half of the 200 Iraqi newspapers — are owned by parties. Rates for political spots on the larger Baghdad stations run as high as $3,000 per minute.

At his own desk, Mr. Alwash clicked on an Internet link and a song began to play: a campaign tune recorded last month by Elham al-Madfai, one of Iraq’s best-known singers. The words, written in 1941, are about a doctor who can solve all the patient’s problems. Every time the word doctor comes up in the song, the accompanying video shows a smiling Mr. Allawi.

“We’re playing it all over our radio stations,” Mr. Alwash said.

Like Mr. Kifai, Mr. Alwash says he believes the culprit in the poster-tearing — and other incidents involving underhanded tactics — is the United Iraqi Alliance, a religious Shiite group whose main parties now control the government. “We have videos and photographs of police defacing our posters and putting up posters for 555,” Mr. Alwash said, referring to the Shiite alliance by its ballot number.

Redha Jowad Taki, a spokesman for the Shiite coalition, said it condemned the removal of posters. Some of its own had also been torn down, he said, and four of its campaign volunteers had been killed while putting up posters.

The campaign is being conducted with few real rules. Technically, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq is in charge, but it has little money to investigate the more than 80 violations that have been reported in the last month, said Safwat Rashid Sidqi, a commissioner. Last year, the commission fined the Shiite alliance about $1,500 for campaigning after the 48-hour cutoff point before the vote, a pittance for a party with deep pockets.

Money has become a campaign issue too, though there are no limits on spending or contributions, and no public funding. Critics of Mr. Allawi, a White House favorite, accuse him of taking American government money, while enemies of the Shiite alliance say that group gets much of its financing from Iran. Both groups deny the charges, though the sources of their large war chests remain mysterious.

One of the more promising aspects of the election is the participation by Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the vote to elect the 275-member National Assembly last January. Many are risking their lives by campaigning in areas where the Sunni-led insurgency is at its worst.

Hatem Mukhlis, the leader of the Assembly of Patriots, a secular Sunni party, has been traveling three or four times a week from Baghdad to Salahuddin Province, an insurgent stronghold whose capital is Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown.

“My father upgraded Tikrit with money and schools,” said Mr. Mukhlis, a doctor who lived in the United States for 20 years and met with President Bush at the White House before the war. “They remember my father for the services he provided the people.”

Mr. Mukhlis said he hoped the people of Salahuddin would view him in the same light as his father, a respected military officer. He said he has opened up a printing press in Tikrit, and started two mobile health clinics that roam the province in white vans.

Like many other candidates, he has also set up a Web site, www.almalaf.net, to get out his message. On Friday, the home page showed a photo of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite prime minister, next to the bruised back of a male detainee, alluding to the Sunni Arabs’ fears that government-sponsored militias are abducting, torturing and killing Sunnis.

The headline on the site talked about “secret documents” linking Mr. Jaafari to incidents of torture.

The Web site has other draws. At the bottom of the home page, Mr. Mukhlis has posted photos of Miss Egypt and Miss Puerto Rico in bikinis.

Several American groups are teaching Iraqi politicians the basics of campaigning and helping them polish their messages. Chief among them are the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, both democracy-promotion groups with financing from the American government and ties to the two major American parties. They run workshops, help coordinate media campaigns and give lessons in organizing volunteers and conducting polls.

Still, these campaigns could never be mistaken for American ones. The sheer number of political groups and competing messages make it hard for Iraqis to distinguish one party from another. There are few debates or substantive discussions of the issues in this campaign, which is still mostly rooted in personalities and appeals to ethnic or sectarian loyalties.

Because of the risk of drawing attacks by insurgents or rivals, political rallies and barnstorming speeches are virtually unheard of. Mosques are about the only accessible public spaces here, posing an obstacle for the more secular parties. Some secular candidates, including Mr. Allawi, have accused the Shiite alliance of using religious imagery in their posters to suggest that voting for their own groups is a religious duty.

Especially in southern Iraq, the parched Shiite heartland, the power of the religious hierarchy is often impossible to separate from politics.

One local group, the Islamic Coalition, includes six parties that are loyal to ayatollahs from the Shiite holy city of Karbala. In the past two weeks, the coalition’s posters have popped up everywhere there. Some carry images of the group’s two main spiritual leaders, Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi, who lives in the Iranian holy city of Qum, and the Ayatollah Hadi Muderassi, of Karbala.

Clerics who follow these ayatollahs tell their congregations to vote for the coalition. Ayatollah Shirazi’s organization finances a local university, satellite channel and radio station, all of which have given exposure to the coalition’s candidates.

One option for more secular candidates is alliances with tribal leaders, who often have the clout to deliver a substantial number of votes.

On Thursday afternoon, Sheik Abdul Karim Mahoud al-Muhammadawi, a candidate and the leader of a small party, received several dozen such leaders in the courtyard of a house in eastern Baghdad. For hours, the men sat in two long rows, sipping tea and asking Sheik Muhammadawi for his views on various topics. He responded at length.

Afterward, Ali Feisal al-Lami, the sheik’s campaign manager, explained that some of the men indicated they would urge their followers to vote for the sheik’s candidates.

Private networks like these are crucial in Iraq’s hierarchical society, Mr. Lami said. Similar networks exist among devotees of Iraq’s leading Shiite ayatollahs, he added.

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