Page last updated at 06:56 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Poll battle for Iraqi city of Najaf

Women walk past the Imam Ali shrine
Women walk past the Imam Ali shrine, one of the most sacred Shia Muslim sites

By Andrew North
BBC News, Najaf

Millions of Iraqis will be voting this weekend for provincial councils, in the third election since the American-led invasion.

The polls will be a guide to the balance of power ahead of general elections later this year and a test of whether the country is on the road to recovery after the drop in violence in the past year.

One closely-watched election battle is in the holy city of Najaf. The leading Shia party there wants to turn it into the capital of a new self-ruled southern region.

But with other Shia parties strongly opposed, it could split the alliance which dominates Iraqi politics.

When you reach Najaf, it feels different to Baghdad - safer, and it looks in better shape. There are more signs of rebuilding, the roads are better maintained.

There are more election posters and banners too, a sign of the intense battle that is emerging here.

Self rule

Najaf has huge significance - to all Shias worldwide, not just in Iraq.

The spot where their central religious figure, Imam Ali, was buried in 661 is the equivalent of the Vatican, with most of their leading clerics living here too - among them the powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Provincial election posters

Every day, some 10,000 pilgrims visit the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine, surrounded by intricate mosaic-tiled walls. At least half of them are Iranian Shias from across the border.

There is an unending flow of people through the ornate gates. Women in head-to-toe black robes reach out to kiss the walls or touch them with their hands as they enter.

The local economy is built around looking after the visitors, from hotels to restaurants, to hundreds of stalls in the nearby souk, or market.

These days it is probably one of the safest cities in Iraq and for the past two years it has been under Iraqi control.

With the highly sensitive shrine here, they cannot afford to take any chances. There are multiple checkpoints on the way in to the city and security forces everywhere.

In 2004, the city was a battleground as militia fighters loyal to the cleric Moqtadr Sadr fought American troops for control of the city.

But a new struggle is emerging in the city.

Andrew North visits the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf

The leading Shia party here, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, is hoping victory in these elections will allow it to push ahead with plans for a new self-ruled region in the south, with Najaf as the capital.

This would encompass all nine majority Shia provinces south of Baghdad, as well as the key southern oil fields.

Salvation for the Iraqi people, says Sheikh Khalid al-Nomani, its number two candidate here, lies in "federalism" - in other words giving people more local control.

"That way we will not be victimised by a centralised government," he says.

Iraq's Kurds already have their own autonomous region in the north and Iraq's constitution supports greater federalism, he points out.

But the idea is not getting any support from the Supreme Council's Shia allies.

"This is the first step towards dividing Iraq," says Luay Nasseri, a candidate in Najaf for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party.

Mr Maliki's erstwhile ally Moqtadr Sadr also opposes the Supreme Council plan.

'No trust'

However, although it is the biggest party in Najaf, victory will not come easily for the Supreme Council this time. Along with many other mainstream parties, it has lost a great deal of support in the past few years.

A market in the city of Najaf
Najf's economy is build around the visitors to the shrine

As a key party in the ruling alliance in Baghdad, it is seen as partly responsible for failing to stop the chaos.

But in particular, there are signs of a backlash against religious-based parties such as the Supreme Council.

So much so that another religious party, the Sadrist movement of Moqtadr Sadr, is effectively trying to rebrand itself - putting up candidates as independents rather than under the Sadrist name.

"People have no trust in the political parties, both Islamic and non-Islamic," admits Salah al-Obeidi, chief spokesman for Moqtadr Sadr.

The movement says their candidates have been chosen more for their abilities than their religious qualifications.

Given its controversial past, many Iraqis are sceptical about whether it is really changing.

But it is a sign that the shape of the new Iraq is still being settled.

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