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Iraqi Voters Preparing to Go to Polls

In Iraq, voters are preparing to go to the polls on December 15 for the third time this year to choose a new parliament. The event is to 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. Correspondent Scott Bobb visited the region and has this report from Basra.

Ali Kadhim sells shawarma sandwiches on the Cornishe, Basra's promenade along the Shatt 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.

"Right now, I am thinking I will not vote, because the politicians are only looking out for their interests," Mr. Kadhim says. "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 candidates won most of the provincial seats in January's elections. And since then, according to some, they have been imposing their conservative values on this multicultural, largely secular, port-city.

Most women now wear head scarves in public. The government has banned the sale of alcohol, which is forbidden to faithful Muslims. In March, university women attending a picnic were attacked by radical militiamen accusing them of 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 is just one accident. And those radicals, they learned their lesson well," Mr. Mohsen says. "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. There is no discrimination between Christians and Muslims."

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

A member of the Sunni Arab minority who refused to appear on camera because of fears for his safety, Ibrahim Abdulsaid, agrees.

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

Provincial Assembly Vice-President Aqeel Talib says many local leaders were exiled in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, but this has not affected government.

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

This part of Iraq is rich in oil, but received little oil revenues under Saddam Hussein. Many residents want the central government in Baghdad to provide funds for reconstruction and jobs. But this has not occurred, leading to calls for greater 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 says. "I do not think they will choose to separate or isolate the south, but they want revenues to be distributed more fairly."

The December elections will be the third time Iraqis go to the polls in one year. Party leader Haidar Mohsen says voters have learned a lot about the democratic process.

"The electors will be more mature in their decision. They will be more knowledgeable about the elections and what they want from the election," Mr. Mohsen says.

As a result, political observers say they expect some new leaders to emerge in the coming months.