DIWANIYA, Iraq, 17 January 2005 — Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, yesterday reiterated his support for the Unified Iraqi Alliance list which is widely expected to dominate the Jan. 30 general elections, one of his aides said. “Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stresses the need to hold the elections at the scheduled date and confirms his support for list 169,” said Sheikh Najah Al-Abbudi.
He was referring to the Unified Iraqi Alliance, a grouping of major Shiite parties which was formed with Sistani’s blessing and is headed by Abdel Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “A war has been launched against this list, on the grounds that it includes all the currents and strata of Iraqi society,” Abbudi said during a meeting of Sistani’s representatives in Diwaniya, south of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party cried foul last week over the alleged use of religion in advertising by the front-running Shiite coalition. One pamphlet circulating in southern Shiite cities speaks of voting for the UIA as the will of the “Marjaya,” a term used for Sistani and his group of elite clerics. The Iraqi Electoral Commission said it would look into the complaint.
Sistani’s aide also spoke of the cleric’s insistence on holding the landmark elections as scheduled, despite boycott calls by Sunni Arab movements and ever-worsening violence across the country. “All Iraqis should take part in this process, which is the cornerstone of the new Iraq from which a new legitimate and elected government will emerge,” Abbudi said.
Meanwhile, supporters of radical Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr demonstrated for the second-day running to demand better living conditions, a rare display of popular interest in an electoral campaign which has so far been stifled by relentless violence. Hundreds of Sadr followers from various cities in Iraq gathered in front of the oil ministry in Baghdad, some of them oil workers waving lanterns and wearing orange jumpsuits, to protest against oil and electricity shortages.
“The demonstration we are holding here today is aimed at showing what the mood of the Iraqi people is,” said Sheikh Malek Al-Kinani, who heads the Sadr office in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kakh.
“It is very disturbing to see politicians only interested in elections. Instead they should be focusing on meeting the basic needs of the people,” he told AFP.
Thousands joined similar protests in the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad on Saturday. By invoking the dire economic situation and singling out the ever-worsening fuel shortages, Sadr’s movement is tapping into an issue that strikes a chord with most of the population, especially with his power base among the poorer strata of the majority Shiite community. Relentless violence across the country and threats of reprisals by extremist insurgents against those participating in the country’s first democratic polls in decades have marred the campaign and prompted the authorities to announce special security measures.
The government will declare a holiday for the vote and impose tight restrictions on movement, including a total ban on vehicles around polling stations, State Minister for the Governorates Wael Abdul Latif said . Abdul Latif acknowledged that the threat of insurgent attacks had compromised preparations for the poll in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
US-led troops will be relegated to a “supporting role,” US military spokesman Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel told AFP last month, providing “quick reaction forces and back-up forces.” As Iraq’s fledgling security forces faced one of their toughest challenges to date, insurgents continued their bloody campaign, killing five Iraqi soldiers and one policeman on Saturday.