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Southern Iraqis Weigh Local Issues as Parliamentary Election Nears

In Iraq, voters are preparing to go to the polls on December 15 for the third time this year to choose a new parliament, an event that will formally end the democratic transition that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Basra, the southern capital 500 kilometers south of Baghdad, the mood is cautiously upbeat, though the region has yet to see the economic prosperity it expected from its vast oil reserves.

Ali Kadhim, sells Shawarma sandwiches on the Corniche, Basra's promenade along the Shaat al-Arab River. He is not happy. He left school to fight in the Iran-Iraq war 20 years ago and spent 13 years as a prisoner of war. When he was released, he could not find a decent job.

Ali voted in January, when Iraqis chose a transitional parliament amidst considerable violence and he voted in the October referendum, when the new constitution was overwhelmingly approved. But in the elections next month for the new parliament, he is not sure.

"Right now, I am thinking I will not vote, because the politicians are only looking out for their interests," said Ali Kadhim. "When you want to get a job, if you are an independent, you have to join a party or pay $300."

Southern Iraq's people are predominantly Shiite Arabs, who traditionally follow the advice of their religious leaders, even in politics. Islamist politicians won most of the provincial seats in January's elections. Some say since then, they have been imposing their conservative values on this multicultural, largely secular, port city.

Most women now wear head scarves in public. In March, university women attending a picnic were beaten by a radical militia for un-Islamic behavior.

Haidar Mohsen is the head of the Islamic Virtue (Fadhila Islamia) party which, with several other Islamist parties, dominates the local government. He says this was an isolated incident.

"It was an accident," said Haidar Mohsen. 'And those radicals, they learned their lesson well. So they will not do it again, because this is a peaceful society that rejects any type of violence."

He says the government promotes traditional Muslim values, but through dialogue and the media, not by force.

A Christian shop owner, Emile Yacob, says Basra society, for the most part, is tolerant.

"It is normal," he said. "There is no discrimination between Christians and Muslims."

Some western officials worry that nearby Iran, whose government is dominated by conservative Shiite leaders, is gaining too much influence here and is financing political parties and militias. Security officials say that sophisticated bombs used in recent terrorist attacks here came from Iran.

A member of the Sunni Arab minority, Ibrahim Abdulsaid, agrees.

"The Iranians, they are coming to occupy Iraq," he said. "And they are coming because they are against the Iraqi people."

The vice president of the provincial assembly, Aqeel Talib, says many local leaders were exiled in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, but their influence is exaggerated.

"Yes, maybe we have some parties that went to Iran because it was safe, but that doesn't not mean they are serving Iran," he explained. "It is in their interest to serve the people of Basra."

This part of Iraq is rich in oil, but it received little oil revenue under Saddam Hussein. Many residents are waiting for the central government in Baghdad to provide funds for reconstruction and jobs. But this has not occurred, leading to calls for more regional autonomy.

The new constitution, which garnered 96 percent of the vote here, establishes a federal system in Iraq. Some Iraqis fear it will break up the nation.

A professor at Basra University, Ali Hamdy al-Maliky, says southern Iraqis have long resented the neglect by the central government, but they still want a unified Iraq.

"For the people in the south, federalism does not mean separation," he said. "I do not think they will choose to separate or isolate the south, but they want revenues to be distributed more fairly."

But 32-year-old computer engineer Hussam Ali says if the same government continues in power, it will fail sooner or later.

"If it continues like that, poverty will continue, problems will continue, corruption will continue, failure of democracy will continue, dictatorship or let's say distributed dictatorship will continue, day after day. People will not accept that," he said.

The December elections will be the third time Iraqis go to the polls in one year. Islamic Virtue party leader Haidar Mohsen says voters have learned a lot.

"The electors will be more adult in their decision," he said. "They will be more knowing [knowledgeable] about the elections and what they want from the election."

As a result, political observers say they expect some new leaders to emerge in the coming months. But whether they will be able to fulfill the aspirations of the people in this part of Iraq remains to be seen.