Lack of security is keeping Iraqi political parties from doing much campaigning before next month's scheduled election. With political rallies and marches almost out of the question for fear of violence, most parties are restricted to using radio, television, and newspaper ads to convince the Iraqi people to vote for them. Some parties are urging that the election be postponed for a few months, hoping for an improvement in security and a fairer poll.
The radio dial is packed with stations in Baghdad, and this is where many Iraqis get their news and entertainment. It is also one of the few ways that political parties can reach would-be voters to ask for their support at the polls on January 30.
The security situation in much of the country is so precarious that some parties have tried not to publicize the names of their candidates for the National Assembly, because they could be targeted for assassination. Several candidates have been killed, with the campaign just under way.
One of Iraq's elder statesmen is Adnan Pachachi, who heads the Iraqi Independent Democrats party and is running for the interim National Assembly on what he considers an independent, non-sectarian, and multi-ethnic slate of candidates. Mr. Pachachi says reaching the voters is tough.
"It is difficult," he said. "I mean, you have to depend on television, radio, on newspapers, on pamphlets and things like that. The idea of sort of holding large meetings, it is not easy."
Mr. Pachachi says the upcoming election is also a dangerous time for voters, and he says fear and intimidation could severely affect voter turnout.
"There is fear, you know. A lot of people who really are in favor of voting are really afraid because they have been receiving threats. They have been intimidated. And also, the security situation is such that nobody feels safe," he explained. "So a lot of people tell me, well we support you, we would love to vote for you, but we do not know whether we will be able to risk going to the polling stations."
That is why his party and several others are calling for a delay of up to six months for the elections. He says because of extreme instability, it will be almost impossible for voters to go to the polls safely in some parts of the country.
"Small turnout in these areas would leave large segments of the Iraqi population disenfranchised, and many, many areas of Iraq not adequately represented in the National Assembly, which means the elections would be criticized as illegitimate, as not complete, as not credible," he said. "I believe that a non-inclusive election that leaves large parts of the country unrepresented and millions of Iraqis disenfranchised, an election like this is worse than no election at all."
Iraq's Shiite majority has largely embraced the upcoming poll. Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has told his followers that they have a duty to vote. His words are seen on the vast majority of campaign-related posters pasted on walls around Baghdad.
The two leading Shiite parties, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have formed a coalition that is expected to do well at the polls.
Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is firm on the timing of the vote.
He says, There is no justification for delaying the election. There is no legitimate authority here in Iraq, and we cannot postpone the election any longer. He says, I think the Iraqi people are ready for this election.
Shiites make up 60 percent of the population and see the vote as a chance to take control of the country after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein and earlier Sunni rulers.
But many Sunni organizations are boycotting the election. One Sunni group that is taking part is the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is also calling for a delay until security can be guaranteed.
Islamic Party financial director Fuad al-Ani said the party has not yet started publicizing the names of its candidates because that would put their lives in danger.
He said, postponing the election is necessary. To ask people to vote without knowing the backgrounds of the candidates is unacceptable. They should know something about the people who want to represent them in the National Assembly.
Basic civic education is also a challenge. Voters will face a daunting array of parties to choose from on election day, and more than 7,000 individual candidates for the National Assembly.
On Sunday three electoral commission workers were gunned down in a brazen daytime ambush in central Baghdad.
The Shiite Supreme Council leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has volunteered his party's militia to secure polling-related sites if it helps ensure that the vote will happen on time.
"The Badr Brigade is ready to offer thousands of its members to protect electoral centers," he said. "We are willing to lay this responsibility on ourselves."
But other political parties are not likely to welcome the idea of a Shiite militia allied to the Supreme Council guarding polling stations and voter-registration centers.
The Sunni leader, Mr. al-Ani, points to deadly car bombings in two Shiite holy cities as evidence that security cannot be guaranteed anywhere.
"You saw what happened in Karbala and Najaf a few days ago," he said. "It is not just the Sunni areas that are hot spots. I think all of Iraq is a hot spot."
Iraqi election officials and the U.S. government say the election will happen on schedule.
Mr. Pachachi, the elder statesman, thinks the Americans might relent if Iraqis were united in asking for a delay. He has also been trying to persuade some of the boycotting groups to take part in the election and he believes he could convince them if he had a little more time. But he is not particularly optimistic he is going to get it.