Iraq's defense minister blasted the leading Shiite Muslim slate as "an Iranian list."

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SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — The Iraqi election season officially kicked off yesterday, and the mudslinging started right away.

Iraq’s defense minister, an ally of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, blasted the leading Shiite Muslim slate as “an Iranian list.” He was referring to a slate of candidates backed by Iraq’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and expected to dominate the Jan. 30 parliamentary election. The Shiite slate is likely to pose the most serious challenge to the list assembled by Allawi.

“They (Iranians) 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,” the defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, said at a news conference in Baghdad. He went on to repeat accusations that Iran and Syria are financing and training Iraqi insurgents.

Shaalan’s rhetoric was part of a series of announcements by Iraqi government officials in recent days aimed at stirring up popular opinion against Allawi’s main competition, playing on Iraqis’ memories of oppression and fear of meddling by neighboring countries.

Allawi himself made a surprise statement on Tuesday that his government would begin trying former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime next week.

Allawi’s government announced yesterday that among the first Saddam lieutenants who will be brought into court next week is Ali Hassan al-Majid, the notorious “Chemical Ali,” who organized poison gas attacks against Kurds and Shiites. Al-Majid is probably the most hated figure in the former regime, and unlike Saddam, he doesn’t have any supporters inside Iraq who are likely to be galvanized by his trial.

Top candidates in Iraq

Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim: A Shiite cleric who heads the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He opposed Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran before returning after last year’s U.S.-led invasion. He is allied to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric. Al-Hakim heads the list of 228 candidates of the coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance, widely expected to dominate the polls.

Ayad Allawi: Prime Minister of Iraq’s interim government, he is a former surgeon and Iraqi exile with a long history of dealings with the United States, including the CIA. He is a moderate Shiite Muslim and a former Baath party member whose wealthy family was close to the royal family that ruled Iraq before Saddam Hussein took power.

Ibrahim Al-Jaafari: A Shiite and the main spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, previously based in Iran after it was crushed by Saddam in 1982 after a bloody campaign against Saddam’s regime in the late 1970s. The party is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance coalition, and al-Jaafari — a former Governing Council member — is running on its list.

Adnan Pachachi: Foreign minister in the government toppled by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in 1968 and, after Saddam’s fall, a member of the Governing Council, he now heads a new group called the Independent Democratic Gathering. Pachachi, 81, is a prominent secular Sunni, who was pushed aside as a possible interim president in favor of Ghazi al-Yawer when sovereignty was handed over in June.

Ahmad Chalabi: A secular Shiite and one-time Pentagon confidant who led the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group for Iraqi exiles, Kurds and Shiites. A 58-year-old former banker who left Iraq as a teenager, Chalabi fell out with the U.S. this year after claims he had passed on intelligence to Iran. Chalabi, who was convicted in absentia of fraud in a banking scandal in Jordan in 1989, is running on the United Iraqi Alliance list.

Hussain Al-Shahristani: One of six figures chosen by al-Sistani to draw up the United Iraqi Alliance list of candidates, al-Shahristani is a nuclear scientist whose refusal to work in Saddam’s nuclear program led to his 1979 jailing. He escaped in 1991. Educated and married in Canada, al-Shahristani worked for human rights organizations in Iran and London. After Saddam was toppled, al-Shahristani’s reputation for being nonpolitical saw his name floated as a possible interim prime minister, but the job went to Allawi instead.

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“This is for election purposes,” said Saad Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University. “It’s very good propaganda for Allawi’s government if they put Chemical Ali on trial because he has no supporters. The crimes registered against him are enormous. They cannot be defended.”

Allawi announced that he had formed his own list of 240 candidates, which includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But many Sunni groups have urged a boycott if the vote goes ahead as planned.

The election is for a 275-member National Assembly, which will appoint a central government and draft a permanent constitution that will govern Iraq for years to come.

The Bush administration, Allawi’s government and Shiite religious leaders all insist that the election should go ahead Jan. 30, despite concerns about security and poor preparations. But without significant participation by the Sunni minority, many Iraqis fear the election would lack legitimacy and could drag the country toward civil war.

The threat of sectarian violence was highlighted yesterday, when a bomb exploded at the gate of one of the Shiites’ holiest sites, the Imam Hussein Mosque in the southern city of Karbala. The bombing killed seven people and wounded Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalayee, who is al-Sistani’s representative in the city.

One of the al-Sistani-backed slate of 228 candidates, Sayed Salem Yaqoubi, was assassinated Saturday in Baghdad, an official from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said yesterday.

The al-Sistani slate is considered the election front-runner because Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, and most devout Shiites look to the ayatollah for guidance. Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, have dominated the political system since Iraq gained its independence in 1932.

At the top of the Shiite slate are several politicians with close ties to Iran. First on the list is Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric who lived in exile in Iran for more than 20 years. Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite who has fallen out of favor largely because of his relationship with Iran, is among the top 10 candidates on the slate.

But some Iraqis warn that the Allawi government’s rhetoric against Iran could increase tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. They note that neither the Bush administration nor the Iraqi government has presented evidence to back up claims of Iranian support to the insurgency.

“They don’t have concrete evidence of such an intervention,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, leader of an Iraqi nationalist party that is boycotting the election. “It is natural for a government like Allawi’s to accuse foreign powers of being responsible for the insecurity in their country.”

It also was unclear whether interim President Ghazi al-Yawer would join Allawi’s list of candidates for the new national assembly or form his own slate.

Without reviewing the specific names, rival political groups said it was hard to gauge how representative Allawi’s slate, or platform, will be. The inclusion of al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who has said he may offer his own list, would be key, political experts said.

Voters will chose between the lists, rather than select individual candidates. The elected assembly will be charged with appointing a new prime minister and drafting a permanent constitution.

In Sunni Muslim cities such as Ramadi and Samarra, candidates are too afraid to campaign, according to Alaa Makki, political adviser for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group pushing for a delay in elections.

Makki said his party’s candidates also are worried about the effect of U.S. forces on the campaign. He said one member of the party’s slate was recently arrested by the military based upon what he called false allegations levied by a rival. The man was released seven days later, he said.

At the United Nations, the world body reported yesterday that it plans to open offices in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Irbil to help organize the January balloting. Four or five staff members would be assigned to each office, according to the United Nations, which has about 20 election workers in Iraq.

The announcement came on the eve of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s meeting in Washington with outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. The two U.S. officials and the Iraqi government have been pressing the United Nations to expand its electoral team and its presence in the country for the vote.

Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq in October 2003, after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers.

The first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.

A small contingent returned in August. U.N. officials stressed the U.N. mission is providing technical assistance, not monitoring the election.

A voice for unity came from an unlikely source yesterday. The Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led bloody uprisings and called for armed resistance to American forces, issued a statement from the southern holy city of Najaf asking candidates to run “a clean election process that will honor us and take this country from darkness to light.”

Al-Sadr’s militant movement didn’t register as a political party and isn’t on the ballot, Shiite politicians said.

“I’ll be Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish as long as I’m an Iraqi,” al-Sadr vowed in the statement yesterday. “I’ll always defend the rights of the minorities and make sure they have their share in the elections.”

Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.