Iraq PM faces wiser competition in national vote

  @ibtimes on January 01 2010 1:27 PM

Iraq - Little has been done to improve Iraq's impoverished city of Basra, but for one slum dweller, the fact that no more corpses are dumped outside his door means Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gets his vote.

Parliamentary elections are due on March 7, and as the young democracy enacts new laws to settle long-festering disputes over territory and Iraq's vast oil reserves, competition for a seat at the political table is expected to be fierce.

The mainly Shi'ite Muslim city of Basra is considered one barometer of voter sentiment in Iraq whose population is mostly Shi'ite, and a message of security peppered with nationalist appeals propelled Maliki's allies to power there in last January's local polls.

Given that the security situation has remained stable in Basra since then, the same message may work for Maliki again in March, but competitors could steal his thunder by copying elements of his campaign and highlighting the lack of progress in any fields but law and order.

Maliki's Dawa party heads a coalition that will face off against the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the other main contender for the Shi'ite Arab vote, though both groups include other sects and ethnicities to garner broad nationalist appeal.

Iraq's first elections for a full term parliament were in 2005, two years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, when millions showed ink-stained fingers to show they had voted in the country's first democratic elections in decades.

But after the ensuing years of sectarian bloodshed, widespread corruption and little progress in providing basic services, voter enthusiasm has ebbed and expectations are low.

We haven't seen any difference ... Only security has improved. We used to have shots fired here all the time, but the killing has stopped. We used to get corpses dumped here, said Kadhim Ali, who lives in a breeze block shack in a Basra slum.

Most of Iraq's massive oil reserves are in the south near Basra, but the city has seen little benefit. Two boys encrusted with dirt crossed over an oil pipeline near the slum carrying sacks of drinks cans they had collected to sell for recycling.

Still, Basra residents say, it could be worse. The city had until last year been run by gangs and militias.

In one of the boldest moves of his leadership, Maliki ordered a military crackdown in March last year, restoring a sense of order to the city and wresting its control from thugs.

The only tangible benefit is security. It's the most important thing before food, water and petrol, so I think people will vote for Maliki again, said Alaa al-Jalil, a teacher.

LESSONS LEARNED

Although too early for election hopefuls to fully outline campaign messages for the March 7 polls, it is clear that a message of law-and-order and improved security will feature prominently in Maliki's State of Law (SoL) coalition campaign.

Huge bombs have rocked in Baghdad in recent months and undermined Maliki's claims to have improved security, but the blasts have had little apparent effect on voters in Basra.

SoL's message is clear. We want a country governed by law ... The law is above all. This is our top message and it is clear to the people, said Jinan Abdul Jabbar al-Ibreesam, a member of parliament and an SoL candidate for the election.

The INA, led by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a powerful Shi'ite party, appears to have learned lessons from its poor performance compared to SoL in January's local polls, and the INA intends to highlight security too.

The INA is a fundamental partner in bringing security ... bringing security is going to be an important headline (of our campaign), said Ali al-Kanaan, a Basra ISCI spokesman.

But, seeing the glaring lack of progress in other fields, the INA also vows to weed out the corrupt or incompetent officials many blame for a lack of basic services, a chief criticism of Maliki's government and local officials.

Security is not the winning card right now, Kanaan said.

With its nationalist name, the INA is also emulating Maliki's apparent shift away from his Shi'ite sectarian roots. ISCI's previous election campaigns had been overtly religious.

Many Iraqis say they are tired of years of sectarian bloodshed, and accuse sectarian politicians of poor performance.

Whether the INA and SoL's nationalist claims convince voters remains to be seen given they are both Shi'ite-controlled and include only a smattering of Iraqis of other backgrounds.

(Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed, writing by Mohammed Abbas)

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