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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 00:37 GMT
Shias hold future in their hands
By Paul Wood
BBC News, Baghdad

"We're only going to campaign in the streets around our headquarters," said the candidate, "and none of the others will show their faces. They are afraid of being assassinated."

Old man and boy
Mistrust of US motives may stop many Sunnis from voting

It had taken us the whole day to find anyone doing "normal" campaigning. Little wonder that one Iraqi politician called this the "first secret election in history".

But the party we were talking to, the Iraqi National Unity Coalition, had been illegal under Saddam. Fifty-five members had been executed.

They were happy to be taking part in any kind of poll, even one in which actually meeting the voters meant having bodyguards keeping a nervous watch on the streets.

Another candidate taking the very brave decision to campaign, Abeer al Sahalani of the National Democratic Alliance, said: "I never go out before 10am because most explosions happen before then. You can think of new ways to get out and see the people."

Shia hopes

Ten minutes drive away, there was a fierce debate going on in the middle of the road. It was not, however, to do with the election campaign but over who should have the next space in the day long queue for petrol.

The future stability of Iraq may depend on the magnanimity which any presumably Shia government is able to show to the dispossessed Sunnis

A long line of cars stretched back, blocking traffic. Frustrated motorists shouted and waved their fists at each other. A policeman vainly tried to keep them apart.

One of the motorists angrily turned to us, shouting that elections didn't mean anything when life was as bad as this.

Others in the queue, though, said they thought a new government could improve things - and they would be voting.

Most were Shias and said they had chosen number 169 on the ballot, the list backed by the supreme Iraqi Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The Shias think it is their turn to run Iraq after decades of what they view as Sunni domination.

Civil war scenario

In Sunni areas, by contrast, there is hostility or indifference to the poll.

In one Sunni district of Baghdad we drove through, there were no posters and little, if any, campaigning.

Posters for party supported by Ayatollah Sistani
Campaigning has been bolder in Shia parts of Iraq

We could not get out to talk to people because the kidnap threat for foreign journalists in these areas is high.

The al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has denounced the elections as an American plot to hand power to the Shia. He has declared that anyone taking part will be considered an infidel and killed.

In one suburb of Baghdad, Sunni gunmen were seen distributing leaflets promising to "wash the streets" with the blood of anyone who voted.

Zarqawi and his followers are radical Sunnis who consider Shias to be apostates.

They have been blamed for many of the bomb attacks at Shia mosques in which, over the past year, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed.

If they can persuade many Iraqi Sunnis that they are right, this is one of the scenarios for a slide into civil war after the elections.

The future stability of Iraq may depend on the magnanimity which any presumably Shia government is able to show to the dispossessed Sunnis.

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