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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 15:46 GMT
Small signs of progress in Basra
By Paul Wood
BBC, in Basra

Supporters of the United Iraqi Alliance
People are expected to vote in large numbers for the main Shia list
Election posters are everywhere in Basra.

This, the third national ballot in a year has not dampened Iraqis' enthusiasm for the democratic process.

The posters and bunting are up in Sunni areas of Basra as well as Shia areas.

And elsewhere in the country, Sunni Arab participation is expected to be high, with even some insurgent groups urging people to vote.

All of this is reason to hope for a

peaceful election. Still, no one is taking any chances.

There will be a massive security operation on election day, with British troops providing the outer cordon.

Maj Gen Hasan Sawadi al-Saadi, the police chief in Basra, said he had "unconfirmed intelligence" of plans for attacks on voters using snipers and pistols with silencers.

"We've also received information that terrorists may use cars, trolleys and motorbikes to carry out bombings," he said.

Commander of the Multi-National Division in southern Iraq Maj Gen Jim Dutton was more relaxed, saying he had no intelligence on any credible threat on election day.

Islamic party

Flies buzzed in the local market and British soldiers stepped gingerly over the pooling blood from the open air butcher's shop.

Watching them, a small crowd gathered, waving victory signs and shouting "Five-five-five" - the number on the ballot paper for the Shia-led religious coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

Iraqi policeman handing out UIA posters
The UIA gets campaign support from an unusual source
People in Basra are expected to vote in large numbers for the alliance.

It is likely to be the biggest party in the new parliament, although probably without an overall majority.

Does that mean the new Iraq is moving closer towards an Islamic state?

"Most Iraqis are Muslims, so we think the new government will maintain the country's Islamic identity," said Amir Hussein Fayl, of the Islamic Daawa Party.

"Christians will be free to follow their own religion. But Islam must be the main source of the constitution. We won't accept anything less."

Mosque clash

But the Shia are divided among themselves.

An amateur video is circulating in Basra of a recent clash in the holy city of Najaf.

As night falls, and hundreds of people start to pray in the streets, gunmen loyal to one Shia group open fire on supporters of another.

Aftermath of bomb blast in Basra
Basra residents want security, like all Iraqis everywhere
The worshippers flee in terror while muzzles flash from the end of the darkened street.

The crucial point about this video - now part of the propaganda battle in Basra - is that both of these factions are present in the United Iraqi Alliance.

Such divisions might mean that only a secular figure will be able to unite Iraq.

And many believe that secular politician will be the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi.

"Iyad Allawi is a national figure," said Dr Ghali Najim Mutar, one of the leaders in Basra of his party, the Iraqi National Accord Movement.

Slow improvements

"Only uneducated people think he is controlled by America and Britain. During his premiership, he established the Iraqi security forces and police, and life in Iraq improved," he added.

We visited a computer centre in Basra, which will be one of the city's polling stations.

All the machines were new, a sign that the new standard of living does, slowly, seem to be getting better.

Overwhelmingly, people wanted two things from these elections: improved security and, eventually, the departure of foreign troops.

"If a foreign army came to your country, you would not like them to stay for a long time," said the computer centre manager.

The international forces have exactly the same hope of these elections: that they will mark the start of their process of withdrawal.

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