Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shia Alliance Woos Basra

Voters in the southern city are debating the merits of secularism versus sectarianism in the run-up to election day.
By Safaa Mansur
Hadi Ameesh al-Karnawi hangs a huge banner on the cracked wall of his house in Basra's al-Hayaniyah neighbourhood. "Elect the United Iraqi Alliance so that the mass grave diggers will not return," it reads.



The bodies of Karnawi's three sons were discovered in a mass grave unearthed after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. He is a member of the Badr organisation, the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - one of the top political entities in the United Iraqi Alliance.



"The December 15 elections will be like a decisive battle," said Karnawy, 55. "The next government, which will be in power for four years, will be a Shia one."



Basra, Iraq's third-largest city with a majority Shia population, is one of the strongholds of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia-dominated slate that now holds more seats than any other list in parliament.



Though it is expected to do well in the upcoming poll, it is likely to lose some parliamentary seats to less religious Shia-led alliances, such as deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, and Sunni Arab slates that are contesting Iraq's polls for the first time since Saddam's government was ousted.



Shias – and particularly religious conservatives in Shia-dominated areas like Basra - were oppressed under Saddam's alternatively secular and Sunni-led government. Shia parties and leaders dominate Basra province now, and armed militiamen try to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, according security sources and residents in the area.



Captain Ziad al-Sadoon of the Basra police force said Islamic militias, particularly the Badr organisation and the Mahdi Army belonging to the young Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are powerful elements here, and try to apply Sharia law and punish those seen as violating it.



Sadoon said, "Most of the human rights violations are done in the name of Islam, such as restrictions on freedoms – especially women's rights – and destroying liquor stores."



Ahmed al-Aboodi, a member of the Islamic Dawa Party casually dressed in a suit without a necktie, defended Islamic organisations against the allegations and said Basra's conservatism needs to be respected.



"Voters lent us their trust in the January elections," he said. "We have to protect the Islamic habits and traditions in the city."



"According to our surveys, the United Iraqi Alliance will win 70 per cent of votes in central and southern Iraq. That means we have the people's support. We respect minority views, provided they respect the majority opinion."



Ameera Saeb, a 40-year-old Christian who works as a waitress in one of Basra's hotels, asserted that Islamic movements have not helped Iraq or Basra. She said they had only restricted freedom and increased sectarianism.



"After the fall of the regime, I had to wear a veil, because I was afraid of being tortured by the Islamic groups and their armed militiamen that roam the streets," she said.



"I will vote for [Iraqi National List leader and former prime minister Ayad] Allawi, because he doesn't talk about sectarianism," she said. "He is so confident and secular and doesn't restrict my freedom."



Muhammed al-Amili, a 32-year-old journalist, agreed that Iraq needs secular leadership.



"I hope that the secularists will win because they understand our problems more than the others," he said. "I will vote for Ahmed al-Chalabi, and I hope he will win. But I'm not worried about the United Iraqi Alliance winning, because the constitution guarantees my freedom."



In southern Basra's Sunni Arab communities like al-Zuber, voters are divided.



Some support the Iraqi Accord Front, the Sunni Arab alliance made up of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the National Dialogue Council and the Iraqi People's Conference.



Othman Sadoon, a 55-year-old Sunni, said the January elections paved the way for the future by producing coalitions with ethnic and sectarian agendas such as the Kurdistan Alliance, which campaigns for Kurds, and the Shioa-led United Iraqi Alliance.



"As Sunni Arabs, we should be biased towards our own group and elect whoever will represent us," said Sadoon.



Other Sunnis in Basra simply wanted an alternative to the current government.



"If a government can't solve the electricity problem, we don't want it," Shahir Rajab, a 40-year-old resident who is tired of fixing his generator.



"Allawi is the solution to our problem," he said. "My wife and I will vote for him on December 15."



Safaa Mansur is an IWPR trainee journalist in Basra.