Former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein may be behind bars in Baghdad, barely a shadow of the dictator he once was.  His legacy is having a major impact, shaping how Iraqis vote in Thursday's crucial parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Iraqis saw their former dictator on television just last week, as he sat in a Baghdad courtroom on charges of committing crimes against humanity.  Saddam Hussein faces possible execution. 

But from the beginning, he has remained defiant.  At one point in the trial last week, he berated the chief judge for presiding over what he repeatedly called a sham trial put on by occupiers. 

"Mr. Judge, they are in our land," said Mr. Hussein.  "You are an Iraqi.  They are foreigners, invaders, and occupiers."

The trial of the Sunni Arab leader and his seven co-defendants has been adjourned until after the elections.  But as voters prepare to cast their ballots, the trial remains in the public consciousness, affecting how Iraqis view election issues, candidates and political parties. 

Iraq's majority Shi'ites and minority Kurds suffered terribly under his regime.  Religious Shi'ite Muslims were especially persecuted for trying to practice their faith in Saddam's largely secular, Sunni society.

Former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is a secular Shi'ite, who was once a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.  Now he is trying for a political comeback, running as a moderate and appealing to both Shiites and Sunnis.  His goal is to topple the domination of the religious Shi'ites, who swept into power in last January's election of an interim government.  

Mr. Allawi broke with Saddam more than 30 years ago, and went into exile until after the U.S. invasion in 2003.  The next year, he was appointed by the United States as interim prime minister.  He tried to mollify angry Sunni Arabs and calm the insurgency by bringing many former Baath Party members back into his government.

The move won him grudging respect from Sunni Arabs.  Secular Shi'ites, too, say they like Mr. Allawi because one part of Saddam's legacy that they support was that he kept religion mostly separate from his politics.

A Shi'ite civic engineer, Mohammed Khadar, says Saddam only turned religious after the first Gulf War, when he needed the support of religious Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to shore up his regime against U.S. threats to topple him.

"I think religion is something between the person and his God," said Mr. Khaddar.  "I think there is no intersection between religion and politics.   Maybe we can make use of clerics' ideas and directions, but not in ruling a country."

But Iyad Allawi's appeal to the Sunnis has inflamed the hatred of Shi'ite religious and political leaders, who have been pushing to purge all former Baathists from Iraqi society.   

In some religious Shi'ite strongholds such as Sadr City in Baghdad, campaign posters showing Mr. Allawi's face have been merged with that of Saddam Hussein and plastered on walls in many parts of the slum.
The message to voters is: that a vote for Iyad Allawi is a vote to bring back Saddam Hussein. 

It is the kind of negative campaigning that worries some in Iraqi politics, such as Mithal al-Alousi.  He is a Sunni politician who has been a vocal critic of both Saddam Hussein and his loyalists and the current Shi'ite-led government. 

He warns that Iraqi politics is so full of divisions right now, elections could actually bring more chaos and violence, not less.  

"We have to be very careful," he said.  "Some Iraqi parties, they are part of the democratic process, but they are not democratic.  They do not believe in democracy.  I am so afraid.  Do not forget.  Hitler became chancellor through elections.  Be sure, those people, or some of them, can do like Saddam Hussein and maybe more than Saddam Hussein."

This week's election will put in place a government for the next four years, a crucial period during which Iraq could become a peaceful democracy, a religious state, or break down into civil war.

In January, the most powerful Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made the decision for millions of religious Shi'ite voters by publicly endorsing a religiously conservative coalition called the United Iraqi Alliance. 

Despite his Iranian background, Ayatollah Sistani is revered among Iraqi Shi'ites and his word is considered law by many here.  By endorsing the United Iraqi Alliance, Ayatollah Sistani made clear that he believed that Shi'ites in post-Saddam Iraq would be safest in the hands of religious parties.

The United Iraqi Alliance is again the largest Shi'ite bloc in Thursday's elections.  The largest party in the coalition, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, began as military movement to fight Saddam Hussein's regime from neighboring Shi'ite Iran.

The party's close ties to Tehran and its call for the creation of a federalist Shi'ite state in the oil-rich south of the country have alarmed Sunni Arabs, who say Shi'ites are trying to merge with Iran and form a super-Shi'ite region in the Middle East.

Sunni Muslims, who boycotted January elections, have vowed to turn out in large numbers Thursday, partly in an effort to rein in Shi'ite geopolitical ambitions.  Sunni passions also have been fanned by reports that the current Shiite-dominated government has been involved in the torturing and killing of Sunni Arabs, as retribution for years of oppression under Saddam. 

This time, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has not made a public endorsement of the coalition, insisting that it is up to Iraqis to decide.  But Shi'ite religious scholar Abbas Radha al-Zubaidi says Mr. Sistani has already indicated his preference for the United Iraqi Alliance.

Mr. Zubaidi says the cleric has forbidden his followers to vote for small coalitions not supported by the masses.  He has also banned them from voting for secular coalitions, which will try to weaken the role of religion in society, just like Saddam Hussein did.

But without official word from Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's Shi'ites might feel freer to consider a secular government, one which promises to focus on government programs and security, instead of religion and the past brutality of Saddam Hussein.