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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 17:15 GMT
Iraq election messages get through
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Baghdad

Baghdad hospital workers who were allowed to vote early
A new-found enthusiasm is evident among some voters
Days before Iraq's general election, workers at the Iraqi Islamic Party stream out of their headquarters with armfuls of banners and posters. They have even persuaded footballing hero Ahmed Radhi to endorse them.

Inside the party offices there's a "war room", where party workers sit at a bank of computers exchanging the latest intelligence.

It could almost be a normal election. Except, of course, this is Iraq. So there is always the danger you might get killed.

We are observing an increasing maturity among some parties about what an election is really about
US official
Iraqis go to the polls on Thursday.

It's the first election under a constitution written by Iraqis themselves.

This time, unlike in the first election in January, many Sunni Muslims are expected to vote. So turnout could be dramatically higher.

The big hope is that support for the democratic process might undermine the violence. Already it has been much quieter in the run up to this election than the bloodbath last time round.

'Forbidden by God'

In fact, even the insurgents are split over whether or not to take part.

In a statement posted on an Islamist website on Monday, the group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi and four other militant groups said the "so-called political process" was forbidden by God's laws and against the Koran. But this time they did not threaten to disrupt the elections.

Gunmen guard a party working putting up posters in Ramadi
In Ramadi, some armed groups are protecting campaign workers
Meanwhile, some other insurgent leaders in the trouble spots of Falluja and Ramadi have urged their followers to vote, and even pledged to protect polling stations.

Abu Abdullah, an insurgent from Ramadi, warned al-Qaeda not to target polling stations.

"We will defeat them if they dare to attack the polling centres," he said. "Frankly speaking, if they resort to attacking us or polling centres, we will react."

There are other signs that democracy is beginning to catch on.

Beginning to 'get it'

The US government-funded National Democratic Institute has been giving democracy training to some of the 231 political parties taking part.

"I think we are really observing an increasing maturity and level of understanding and sophistication on the part of some of the larger political parties on what an election is really about and what campaigning is really about," said an official from the institute, who didn't want to be named for security reasons.

"They really have begun to get it, what it means to be a political party campaigning for elected office."

Defaced campaign poster for Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress
Candidates unpopular in certain areas have had posters defaced
The evidence of that is ever present on the television. Slick American-style election adverts are everywhere.

Press conferences are neatly staged to appeal to TV, just like in London or Washington.

The Iraqi Islamic Party has been making use of some of that training. It is a moderate, mainly Sunni Muslim party taking part in elections for the first time.

One of the senior officials, Ala Makki, described how they had been learning from election techniques around the world. They have even been taught to speak in sound bites.

But he also complained of intimidation. One of their leading candidates was killed two weeks ago, and the violence goes on.

"We have pressure from other parties, especially the government," said Dr Makki. "They are removing our posters, even some of our members were arrested by police."

Adapting to circumstances

Elsewhere, posters of one of the other leading candidates, the former prime minister Iyad Allawi, have been defaced with pictures of Saddam Hussein.

The parties have had to adapt to the circumstances. There are no grand election rallies, little or no door-to-door campaigning, at least in the more dangerous parts of Iraq.

To ensure security on election days, almost all cars have been banned from the roads.

Iraq's borders and airports have been shut. It is a public holiday and most people are staying at home. So there is optimism that the vote itself should pass off relatively peacefully.

But however successful the election itself, almost everyone is expecting the violence to return soon afterwards.

It is just possible that this could be the beginning of the process of driving a wedge between hardline insurgents, who will never compromise, and Sunni Muslims who might be brought into the political process. But if it happens at all, it is going to take a very long time.

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