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Violence Mars Iraqi Candidates' Ability to Reach Voters

With many parts of Iraq too dangerous to hold large campaign rallies, Iraqi political parties running in the country's January 30 elections have been appealing to voters almost exclusively on television, radio, and in newspapers. The near-daily violence aimed at derailing the elections has presented candidates and their slates extreme challenges, as well as opportunities, for reaching voters.

For the second time in less than three weeks, the leader of the Democratic Islamic Party, Mithal al-Alousi escaped the fate of his predecessor, killed in late December by Sunni Muslim insurgents and terrorists opposed to holding elections in Iraq.

In the first attack earlier this month, assailants fired a mortar at Mr. Alousi's home, but missed. Last week, the 51-year-old politician says insurgents targeted him again. "At 12 o'clock in the night, a [hand] grenade exploded in the first floor of my private house with huge damage," he said.

Chain-smoking to calm his frayed nerves, Mr. Alousi expresses deep frustration, complaining that he and his running mates are being forced to spend time, not canvassing for votes, but trying to stay alive.

Across town, another politician, Ghassan al-Atiyah, says member of his party, the Iraqi Independent Block, have also received numerous death threats from insurgents. Mr. Atiyah leads a small multi-ethnic, multi-religious party on the ballot, comprised mostly of academics and middle-class professionals.

He says that because his party has virtually no name recognition among voters and little money to publicize its platform, the inability to do any grassroots campaigning has been crippling. "What freedom do I have in moving around Iraq to explain our platform? Voters are complaining, 'How on earth are we going to vote? We don't know your names.' So, if you put your name, the people are threatened," he said. "If you don't put the names, the voters say, 'For whom are we voting?' How can we come out of this madness? I'm not sure."

It is a predicament shared by many of the more than 7,000 candidates representing 111 parties and coalitions on the ballot, vying for seats on a new 275-member national assembly. The slates encompass the full spectrum of ethnic, religious, and ideological politics in Iraq; secularists and Islamists, communists and monarchists, Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and others.

For the most part, candidates in the relatively calm, Shiite-dominated southern Iraq and in the Kurdish regions far to the north have been able to campaign publicly.

But for candidates stumping for votes in insurgent strongholds in Baghdad and large parts of the country's center, west and northwest, the main challenge has been to figure out how to reach voters while trying to minimize public exposure.

As candidates avoid the streets, Iraq's sole nationwide television channel, Al-Iraqiya, has been encouraging them to use its network to get their message out to voters.

The head of media relations for the U.S.-backed channel, Abdul al-Ruhaimi, says Al-Iraqiya is obliged by Iraqi Election Commission rules to provide all parties two to three minutes of free and equal airtime. He says since January 1st, about more than two dozen parties have aired partisan ads on his network. "No money. For us, we give it free. Anybody [can] come to the program for conversation about the elections," he said.

Parties are also allowed to buy advertising time on some 20 local television channels, as well as on regional commercial satellite channels.

But in an election campaign where the vast majority of the candidates are too afraid to reveal their names, let alone show their faces, the few candidates daring to appear on television are from large slates, which can afford to hire their own security guards.

Two of the largest, and the richest, slates on the ballot are the 225-member United Iraqi Alliance, a powerhouse coalition of mostly-Shiite groups, and the largely secular Iraqi List, led by the interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

By far, the Iraqi list has been the most aggressive in buying airtime on television.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein nearly two years ago, an estimated 65 percent of Iraq's 26 million people are believed to have purchased once-banned satellite dishes, making television a powerful campaign medium.

On top of daily news programs which give the prime minister plenty of coverage, paid documentaries and ads featuring Prime Minister Allawi and other Iraqi List notables have been increasing in number and frequency on local television and satellite news channels.

The coalition United Iraqi Alliance has also purchased its share of ad time on television. But the slate's main campaign strategy has been to rely on the reputation and popularity of Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric to carry the alliance to election victory.

Few people here dispute Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's status as the most influential man in post-Saddam Iraq. Much of the country's Shiite majority view his words as law. In a loud statement of public endorsement, the reclusive cleric has allowed his famous, grandfatherly face to appear on tens of thousands of United Iraqi Alliance campaign posters on walls across the country.

The alliance's use of Mr. Sistani's image to garner votes has infuriated political rivals, including Prime Minister Allawi. He has filed a protest with the Iraqi Electoral Commission, charging that the practice violates electoral rules against the use of religious symbols.

The United Iraqi Alliance has countered with its own complaints against the prime minister's slate, charging that Iraqi List officials are using Iraqi policemen to hand out pro-Allawi campaign leaflets to motorists and pedestrians.

But many ordinary people here say they see a much larger problem with the elections. They say the on-going violence has stifled vital public discussions and debates in a country, which, after decades of dictatorship, knows little about democracy and how it works.

Iraqis, like 22-year-old Ayoub, say even after a month of watching campaign ads, they still do not know enough about the parties or what they represent to be able to make informed choices on election day. "Actually, these ads are quite new to me and I really can't make anything out of it. It doesn't really tell me anything. Go and vote. Vote for whom? I don't know the people. I haven't heard of them before," he said.

With less than two weeks left before balloting, reaching voters like Ayoub will be a struggle for all but the biggest parties. Despite the constant threat of being killed, the Iraqi politician, Mithal al-Alousi, says he and other challengers have no choice but to forge ahead. He says in order to build a new, democratic Iraq, even flawed elections must be held.