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    Iraqi Voters Offered a Wide Array of Candidates

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    Next Sunday, millions of Iraqi voters are expected to head to the polls to choose a new national assembly, which will name a president and two deputies. In turn, they will decide who will become the next interim prime minister. Three of the leading candidates for the country's most-powerful position are all from the same slate that is expected to dominate the elections.

    Iraqi voters will have to choose among a dizzying array of parties and coalitions vying for seats in the new 275-member national assembly. There are 111 political entities listed on the ballot, representing nearly 8,000 candidates.

    But, because seats on the assembly will allocated under a political system that rewards nationwide voter turnout, most observers here believe the biggest winner Sunday will be the largely-Shi'ite slate called the United Iraqi Alliance.

    Making up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, Shi'ite Muslims are the dominant majority in the country.

    The United Iraqi Alliance was put together at the request of Iraqi Shi'ite's most-senior religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The coalition is headed by a close confidant of the ayatollah, Shi'ite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

    Mr. Sistani, who calls voting a "religious duty" for all Shi'ites, commands so much influence among Iraqi Shi'ites, preliminary surveys indicate as many as 45 percent of registered Shi'ites may vote for the slate.

    With the United Iraqi Alliance poised to win a large number, if not a majority, of seats in the new assembly, observers in Baghdad say it is not surprising that some of the top contenders for the prime minister post are members of Mr. Sistani's coalition.

    One of the strongest alliance candidates for the job is believed to be the current interim finance minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The 62 year-old, French-educated minister is a senior member of the powerful Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq party, headed by United Iraqi Alliance leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

    Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, who is seen as a moderate, leaped into the ranks of front-runners after he met with both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington, last October.

    In an interview with VOA, the finance minister downplayed recent news reports suggesting that he has already been tapped to become the next prime minister.

    "Nothing of that really is discussed within the list. This question is open to later on," said Mr. Abdul-Mahdi. "We're in a very critical situation in Iraq, so I don't think we're in a position to predict."

    Mr. Abdul-Mahdi's closest potential rival for the post of prime minister on the United Iraqi Alliance slate is said to be interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

    The 57-year-old physician-turned-politician is the main spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, which waged a fierce campaign against Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in the late 1970s. Mr. Jaafari, who led the party in exile in Iran until the fall of Saddam's regime in April, 2003, consistently ranks as the most popular politician among Iraqi Shi'ites.

    Another potential prime ministerial candidate is Hussein al-Shahristani, who was one of six people hand-picked by Grand Ayatollah Sistani to draw up the United Iraqi Alliance's candidates list. The Canadian-educated nuclear scientist was arrested and jailed in 1979 by Saddam after he refused to work in the dictator's nuclear program.

    Mr. Shahristani is now Grand Ayatollah Sistani's closest political advisor. Observers say, although the scientist has shown little enthusiasm for becoming the next prime minister, he would probably accept the position, if it is offered to him.

    Depending on the election results, the three United Iraqi Alliance candidates could face stiff competition from the current Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He has put together a largely secular slate for the elections, in hopes of attracting Iraqis who are do not want strong religious influence in Iraqi politics.

    Mr. Allawi's aides predict that, if his slate wins 70 or more seats on the 275-member assembly, Mr. Allawi, a Shi'ite, will be able to generate enough support in the assembly to be reappointed as prime minister.

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