BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi politicians made their last pitches to voters on Friday before a parliamentary poll that al Qaeda-linked militants have sworn to derail with violence.
Few expect a clear winner to emerge from Sunday’s vote, which will shape Iraq’s turbulent politics as U.S. forces that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 prepare to depart.
In leaflets distributed in the volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda-led umbrella group, warned Iraqis they risked death if they voted.
Suicide bombers killed at least 33 people in Baquba, Diyala’s provincial capital, on Wednesday. Attacks in Baghdad, mostly aimed at soldiers and police who were voting early, killed at least 12 people and wounded 35 on Thursday.
Militants had staged no major attacks by Friday afternoon. Security forces will ban vehicle movement from 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday until dawn on Monday to try to prevent election day bombings.
On the last day of legal campaigning, Ammar al-Hakim, leader of a powerful Shi’ite Islamist party, told Iraqis it was their religious duty to vote, citing appeals issued by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric. “Look for the lists that have a history and roots and that stood by the Iraqis in good times and bad,” he said at a rally.
Sistani has carefully avoided endorsing Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) or any other faction, however, instead urging voters to pick the best individual candidates.
This contrasts with his position in the last election in 2005, when his call for Shi’ites to unite helped an alliance of ISCI and other Islamist factions to dominate the vote.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shi’ite Dawa Party was part of that alliance, now heads his own State of Law bloc and is wooing voters by claiming credit for overall security gains since Iraq emerged from the sectarian bloodbath of 2006-07. “I am not afraid of terrorism spreading or returning again, because we have an army, police and adequate security forces, and there is national unity that took hold following national reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites,” he told CNN.
Nevertheless, Maliki said he would be willing to have American troops prolong their stay in Iraq if necessary.
U.S. officials say only dire circumstances would force them to rethink plans to cut U.S. troop numbers to 50,000 by Aug. 31 from about 96,000 now, ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011.
Ahmed Chalabi, a candidate with the ISCI-led Iraqi National Alliance, proposed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that U.S.-Iraqi ties should move from military and intelligence-led operations towards “a more open and balanced relationship”. Chalabi, who was on the CIA’s payroll for years as a Saddam opponent, fell from Washington’s grace after the invasion.
A secular Shi’ite now close to Iran, he threw election preparations into confusion in January when a panel he heads barred hundreds of candidates for their alleged Baathist past. A few dozen were reinstated after making appeals. Some of the most prominent of those barred were Sunni supporters of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who is contesting the election on a nationalist, cross-sectarian programme. “The whole world has witnessed how some of the sectarian parties in power and their foreign patrons recently managed to hijack the political process, overturning court decisions in order to eliminate hundreds of secular and Sunni opposition candidates,” Allawi complained in an op-ed piece in USA Today.
Supporters of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani chanted, whistled and beat drums when he arrived at a rally in Baghdad, hemmed in by heavily-armed bodyguards, on Thursday night.
Abdul-Wahid Hatem, 69, a retired soccer player on crutches, said he backed the independent coalition led by Bolani, whom he described as a servant of the people. “I wish all other candidates and coalitions were like him. Most parties in parliament seek partisan interests.”