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Clerics Feature on Campaign Posters

Candidates are putting pictures of Iraq's top Shia cleric on posters in an effort to win votes.
By Zaid Ali

Political candidates in Najaf are including pictures of influential Shia clerics on campaign posters in a final effort to woo voters before the January 30 elections.

The face of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shia religious leader, is the most often seen on publicity material endorsing various candidates, though he has not openly voiced his support for a specific party or individual.

However, parties like the al-Fadhila (Islamic Virtue) party, which is part of the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, say they have the right to use Sistani's image because the bloc was originally set up on his recommendation.

Whether licensed or not, pictures of a figure who carries so much weight among the Shia community are likely to help politicians sway many voters.

Sheikh Abu Baqir, a spokesman for Sistani in Baghdad, said the ayatollah takes no position on the use of his image in the election campaign, and has not issued any orders regarding pictures of religious leaders on campaign posters.

However, a candidate for the Constitutional Monarchy Movement Party, Laith al-Qaragholi, complains it is dishonest for politicians to use Sistani’s face, because the religious leader does not support any specific candidate or group.

Some Najaf residents are also unhappy about attempts to play on the religious beliefs of the city’s citizens, most of whom are Shia.

Ali Jiru, 28, believes the practice has turned the election into a farce.

“Never in my entire life have I seen a case anywhere in the world where the faces of religious figures appeared on candidates' campaign posters," he told IWPR. “When foreigners visit Iraq nowadays, they get the impression that the religious figures are the candidates.”

Issam Ali ,35, was eager to participate in the elections but he has lost some of his enthusiasm since the campaign advertisements showed up on the streets of Najaf.

“Someone claims Sistani supports his list, and then another candidate claims the same thing,” Ali said. “It's ridiculous and it isn't healthy.

"It is distorting the elections and the position of the Shia clerical leadership.”

Shawkat al-Ibrahimi, 45, a school teacher who is currently working for the local electoral commission office, said candidates should not rely on religious leaders to help their election prospects or to provide publicity.

“People understand the real purpose behind putting those pictures of religious figures on posters for their election campaigns,” said al-Ibrahimi.

Ali Rathi, 22, an engineering student, believes the tactic of linking Iraq’s religious leaders with its political future could backfire.

“The days of oppression and darkness are gone, and everyone in the Iraqi society is now able to think,” he said. “So most of the people hate and distance themselves from election lists that put the picture of religious figures on their posters.”

This story has not been bylined because of concerns for the security of IWPR reporters.

Zaid Ali is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.

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