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Iraqi Candidates Make Appeals Across Religious Lines

  • Elizabeth Arrott

The prayers from a Sunni mosque carry through the streets of this Baghdad neighborhood ... competing with or, perhaps, complementing the prayers from a Shi'ite mosque nearby.

Above both comes the heavy beat of military helicopters, patrolling the city as it prepares to hold elections Sunday.

Baghdad, like much of Iraq, has been driven by sectarian violence, of Shi'ite militias killing Sunnis, Sunni gangs killing Shi'ites and both killing Christians. For many voters, Sunday's election is a chance to put the bloodshed behind them.

This Sunni man says religion has no place in politics.

Sunnis, Shi'ites, Christians, Kurds, there's no difference, he says, adding, all of us are Iraqi.

This sense of national identity has been largely missing from Iraq's political scene since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Shi'ites grasped power after decades of repression under ousted President Saddam Hussein. Sunnis, who boycotted the last national election in 2005, were then largely shut out of the political process.

This time, there are no boycotts, and alliances are cutting across sectarian lines.

Former national security advisor and Iraqi National Alliance member Moawafak al-Rubaie is among the many politicians running on a campaign of inclusiveness.

"I believe the Iraq people by nature reject extremism, whether it is religious, sectarian, ethnic or even ideological. They tend to come to the middle," al-Rubaie said. "They learned the trick of compromises. They are more moderate and centrist."

Not everyone is so optimistic about the prospects for immediate, peaceful coexistence.

One Christian woman said it was too dangerous for her to speak out about the threats she and her family face. She adds that it is worse for her relatives in the northern city of Mosul, but even in Baghdad she is worried about being murdered for her beliefs.

The north also holds one of the biggest ethnic threats to national unity – Kurdistan. Any coalition government will likely have to include Kurdish politicians, and no one knows what bargaining chips, including greater autonomy – will be needed to guarantee their support.

Adding to the fault lines of religion and ethnicity is also gender. The government has tried to address the question of equality with a quota system – at least 25 percent of each party's candidates must be women.

It's welcome news to some women who felt the rise of religious extremists was threatening to set back women's civic and human rights.

This middle-aged shopkeeper says she is pleased there will be more female lawmakers, for she believes they will be more likely to stand up for issues concerning women.

But like many voters, she places religion, ethnicity, even gender, lower on her list of priorities.

For her, the key is security. Seven years of conflict have taken their toll. And in a city that has seen its infrastructure largely collapse, she'd like to have the water and electricity services actually work.