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Smaller Parties Jostle for Piece of Iraq Election Pie

Times Staff Writer

The only sound disturbing the rural stillness as Jawdat Obeidi laid out his election battle plan was the tinkling of spoons in dozens of tea cups.

“We have 50 days. We have to exploit every minute,” Obeidi told the more than 60 men seated cross-legged on the floor of a house outside this southern Iraqi city. “We have to use all the influence we can -- tribal, religious, social and otherwise -- to get as many votes as we can.”

The slightly rumpled former exile, who long ago served in Saddam Hussein’s army, spent the recent afternoon flanked by an array of rural tribal elders, turbaned religious sheiks and doctors and engineers in suits. The purpose: final planning before campaigning for Iraq’s parliamentary election officially begins today.

Iraq’s electoral landscape is crowded with powerhouse coalitions boasting insider status and nationwide reach. Major blocs backed by Iraq’s powerful Shiite Muslim religious leadership and by officials from the former Iraqi Governing Council are expected to win a large share of the national assembly’s 275 seats.

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But Obeidi, 47, has high hopes for his comparatively modest Iraqi Unified Democratic Congress coalition, which has joined a 150-candidate slate for the Jan. 30 legislative election. The assembly will be charged with forming a government and writing a national constitution.

“I think the parties that didn’t participate in the GC have a better chance than the ones that did,” said Obeidi, referring to the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. A former general who broke from the Iraqi army in 1991, Obeidi joined an uprising in his hometown of Hillah during the Persian Gulf War.

A Shiite, he is banking on his local credentials and on the damaged credibility of the Governing Council to open up the Iraqi political scene.

“Those parties didn’t serve the needs of the Iraqi people and the people know that,” he said.

Independent election observers and organizers agree that smaller grass-roots slates will probably do well. After decades of autocratic rule by Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party and more than 18 months dominated by exile-led groups favored by the U.S., many Iraqis are deeply suspicious of all party politics, said an official with an international organization working on political party development in Iraq.

“Iraqis have an enormously refreshing amount of cynicism toward political leaders and political parties, and that is healthy,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For Obeidi and the other candidates on his slate, outsider status is a major selling point. The coalition’s meeting was attended by 32 national assembly hopefuls and another 32 candidates for the Babil Provincial Council. It was held in a secluded home outside Hillah, the predominantly Shiite capital of Babil province south of Baghdad.

The carpeted room in which they sat was ordinarily reserved for the tribal gatherings known as diwans that are the linchpin of social organization in Iraq and other Gulf states.

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Every 10 minutes or so, when a new guest entered, the whole assembly would lurch to its feet for a round of traditional greetings: a handshake followed by placing the hand over the heart. The gathering combined traditional diwan elements with a ‘Politics 101' seminar, in which Obeidi lectured slate members on campaign tactics, voter outreach and the realities of coalition building.

“This is the new political reality. The more seats we win, the more power we have and the more we can serve the people,” he said. “If I have 15 seats in the parliament, the prime minister will have to give us a ministry or two.”

Although the group expects to get as much as 30% of the vote in Hillah, which would guarantee a major say in the province’s affairs, Obeidi acknowledges that the goal of winning 15 national assembly seats is probably unrealistic.

The electoral development worker predicts that Obeidi’s coalition will win “a seat or two or three,” saying, “He’s a small fish ... but he’s a likable fish.”

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Still it’s something to aim for, and the entire exercise is somewhat of a practice run for post-constitution elections tentatively scheduled for 2006.

Obeidi, the top name on his coalition’s ticket, kicked off the planning session with a brief autobiography.

Born and raised in Hillah, he became a career army officer, but after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he realized that “Saddam was going to destroy this country with his endless wars.”

After the failed 1991 uprisings in the Shiite south and Kurdish north, Obeidi fled to U.S.-protected Iraqi Kurdistan and began organizing armed opposition to Hussein.

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A failed 1996 offensive against the northern city of Kirkuk landed him in an Iraqi jail for two years. The United Nations brokered his release in 1998, and he left for Syria and then for Portland, Ore.

In 2002, as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq grew imminent, Obeidi joined the American-backed Free Iraqi Forces and reentered the country on the heels of coalition troops.

He remains a staunch supporter of the invasion and says a quick exit by the approximately 130,000 U.S. troops would be “a disaster.”

The diverse mix of national and provincial candidates who gathered in Hillah included Abbas Araji, a jolly white-whiskered tribal elder, and Hani Quzweeny, an imposing Shiite cleric whose black turban signifies that he is a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

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The ticket was clearly assembled with an eye to grass-roots appeal. Most candidates are longtime Hillah residents with decades of social and tribal connections.

“Let’s be realistic,” said Dr. Ali Hussein Taee, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist on the provincial ticket. “The people have become fed up with the word party.”

Obeidi’s strongest competition will probably come from the Iraqi United Alliance, a powerhouse Shiite coalition that includes former Governing Council constituents such as the Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and erstwhile Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.

The alliance also carries the implicit endorsement of the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who apparently helped oversee its compilation.

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Still, Obeidi and his candidates seem unfazed by the thought of going head-to-head with the coalition in the Shiite heartland.

“Don’t think that from Baghdad south, all of the Shiites think the same,” Obeidi said. “A huge portion of the Shiite population in Iraq doesn’t want a religious state. They want to see modern parties.”

Still, Obeidi has learned enough in the last year to respect the power of the major parties. That lesson was vividly emphasized in August when a national conference was convened to choose 100 people for a consultative body to act as an interim parliament until January.

Organizers made sure to invite independent activists and politicians such as Obeidi, but the larger parties joined forces to ram through their choices.

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Obeidi tried to organize an alternative slate of names, but withdrew in protest, claiming that the conference had been hijacked by backroom deal-making.

“Here’s a guy who goes to the national conference and practically single-handedly puts together an opposition list,” said the electoral development worker.

“You had the big political leaders looking up on stage and realizing their candidates are on [Obeidi’s] list! They had to literally go and drag their people off the stage.”

Now, with Iraq’s leadership in the hands of voters, Obeidi is eager to get on with the campaign. “We’re finally dealing with actual Iraqis, with the voters,” he said.

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Obeidi is cheerfully pessimistic about the prospects for a peaceful and transparent vote next month.

Between the threat of insurgent violence against both voters and candidates and the possibility of widespread corruption and ballot-rigging, he’s predicting a remarkable mess, which he sees as a necessary step on the road to a reborn Iraq.

“There will be fraud. There will be fake documents. There will be threats.... This election will be a 40% success, but I’m optimistic about that 40%,” he said.

“The next elections, we’ll achieve 60% success and be happy, and one day we’ll have perfect elections.”

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