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Iraqis in Basra Vow to Vote Despite Threat of Violence

Violence has plagued the run-up to Iraq's landmark election in most of the country. Some would-be voters in central Iraq say they may stay away from the polls out of fear of terrorist attacks. But in southern Iraq, majority Shiites are enthusiastically preparing to cast their ballots despite the risk.

As evening approaches in central Basra, election workers stand on the street handing out pamphlets to passing motorists and donkey cart drivers.

The pamphlets encourage people to vote on January 30, and give instructions on how to cast their ballots.

In other parts of Iraq, this kind of work is rarely done so publicly. Election workers have been dragged from their cars and shot in broad daylight on the streets of Baghdad. Election offices have been bombed. Jordanian militant and al Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has declared war on what he calls "the evil principle of democracy," and says he will consider anyone who takes part in the Iraqi election to be an infidel.

Most Sunni Muslim organizations are boycotting the poll. Some people in central Iraq say they are afraid to vote because of the threat of violence.

But here in southern Iraq, the largely Shiite population has embraced the election, partly at the urging of the country's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He has declared voting to be a religious duty.

Electricity worker Hussam Jalil Ahmed spends his days restoring Basra's battered power grid. He does not intend to let anyone keep him from casting his ballot.

"Of course I am afraid, but it is my duty to vote," he said.

Mr. Ahmed's colleague at the electric company, Falah Abdul Wahid, says Iraqis hope to choose their own leaders, in his words, "like civilized countries."

When asked whether he is afraid that voting could be dangerous, he says, "Freedom and democracy do not come without sacrifices and blood. We cannot just wake up one day and find them."

But not everyone in Basra is so enthusiastic. Local resident Ali Abdul Zahra says he will not be voting, because he does not know enough about the candidates.

"No, I do not fear the security threat,” he said. “But why should I vote for someone I do not know?"

Security has been such a priority that many parties have only revealed the names of a few candidates. They say it is not safe for lower-level contenders to publicize their candidacy, because it could make them targets. Several candidates have been killed in the run up to the poll.

Here in southern Iraq, the level of violence has been far lower than in the Sunni-dominated central parts of the country. But authorities are still bracing for possible attacks, afraid that Sunni insurgents will try to target election centers in Shiite areas.

Abdul Saheb Battat manages the local office of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

"On election day there will be no cars moving in the streets except ones that have permission from the electoral commission,” he said. “People will come to election centers on foot. If some people need a ride to the polling stations, we will provide them with transportation."

Iraq's electoral process is exceptionally complex. Voters will be selecting 275 members of a transitional national assembly, which will in turn write Iraq's new constitution. But they will not be casting their ballots for individual contenders. Instead, they will choose between more than 200 lists of candidates. The system is designed to foster cooperation between parties, and to ensure that all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups are represented.

One slate expected to do particularly well is called the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Iraq's most popular Shiite religious parties. Many of its campaign posters bear the photo of Ayatollah al-Sistani. Many of its supporters believe the alliance has the ayatollah's blessing.

Support for the so-called "Sistani list" is evident among some of the families who are enjoying an afternoon stroll along the banks of the Shat al Arab waterway where it rolls through eastern Basra.

Holding his young son in his arms, Abu Ahmed says, "I will choose list 169," referring to the Islamic list. He says, "It contains good people." When asked whether he fears violence on election day, he says, "I will go vote. Sayyid al-Sistani told us to vote. It is a holy thing. This is for us."

Shiite Muslims are roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population, and after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein, they see this as a chance to regain control of the country.

But not all Shias see the Islamic parties as the best way to assert themselves. Basra has traditionally been a more liberal city than many others in the region, less dominated by religious morality. Some city residents are dismayed by the growing influence of conservative clerics. Some also fear the militias allied with the Shiite parties.

In a crowded Basra café, men play dominoes and smoke flavored tobacco through water pipes. They also talk politics.

One of the dominoes-players, who does not give his name, says he will be choosing a more secular option when he votes for the list of candidates topped by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"I will vote, and I will choose those who serve the country on Ayad Allawi's list,” he said. “We educated people think it is good."

But he is not worried about whether one of the religious parties might come out on top. He says, "Nobody will have total control, because our democracy will allow most everyone to participate, and it will not matter who comes to rule. The most important thing is that he serves the country, so we keep the country united."

Voter turnout here in the south is expected to be much higher than in central Iraq. Some 13 million people are believed to be eligible to vote, but election officials say they have no way of knowing how many of those people will actually go to the polls. Iraqi security forces and multi-national troops will be protecting the 5000 polling stations nationwide, although American commanders say the Iraqis will be leading the security effort.