NEWS STORY: Rebel Editor Campaigns as Sadr Champion

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq _ As editor of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, Fattahlah Ghazi al-Esmaili wrote articles championing Iraq’s Shiite uprising against U.S. occupation forces.

As a candidate for the Iraqi parliament, the 38-year-old spends his days shaking hands, speaking to potential voters and meeting with Iraqi leaders. He has traded the track suit and black checkered Arab kaffiyeh he normally wore to work for a beige dress suit, and sports a neatly trimmed beard.

“Before, we were men of (Sadr’s) Mahdi Army; now we are men of politics,” says Esmaili, head of a 180-candidate coalition representing the long-impoverished Shiites of Sadr City. “Yesterday we were out on the streets. Today we are here campaigning, and hopefully tomorrow we’ll be in the presidential palace.”

Despite escalating violence and public confusion about the Jan. 30 election _ at least two candidates and three election workers have been assassinated since the campaign season began in mid-December _ the campaign is picking up steam, with candidates discreetly making campaign stops and distributing literature. More than 100 individuals, parties and coalitions are vying for the 275-seat parliament, which will name a new government, draft a constitution and prepare for another election by the end of 2005.

Iraq’s Sunni minority, which stands to lose big after decades of running the country, bitterly opposes the election. But Iraq’s Shiites _ especially those in places like Sadr City that were often neglected and repressed under Saddam Hussein _ generally look forward to the elections, even though many are unsure about what they are voting for and what free elections mean.

Sadr, whose troops battled U.S. forces on and off for weeks last year, had vocally opposed the election but now appears to be withholding judgment.

Many candidates forgo street appearances or rallies in favor of well-guarded press conferences that serve to drum up media attention. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s loyalists in the interim government have issued a flood of press releases trumpeting their achievements, such as signing a scientific cooperation agreement with Egypt or starting work on bridge repairs in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

But Esmaili, who writes under the pen name Fattah al-Sheikh, is among the few who venture regularly into the streets of the capital, often with no escort other than his driver. On a typical day, he pays his respects to fallen Shiite martyrs, tribal sheiks and community leaders as he shuttles from appointment to appointment in sewage-plagued Sadr City as well as smarter quarters of the capital.

“This city was oppressed in the time of Saddam,” Esmaili says, recounting his standard stump speech. “Sadr City should now be like Uja, Saddam’s birthplace. Uja raised Saddam to president. Sadr City is much bigger than Uja. So we should run for elections and raise one of our own to power.”

The United Iraqi Alliance, a large and powerful coalition with the tacit endorsement of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, invited Esmaili to join its list of candidates, but he declined. Followers of the Sadr family of clerics have had long-standing theological differences with followers of Sistani and political differences with the Hakim clan, whose scion, Abdul Aziz Hakim, tops the alliance list.

Esmaili and his supporters hope to draw on the considerable number of Iraqis who adhere to the Sadr clerical line. “We are betting on our own people,” he says.

Esmaili appears nervous when asked about his relationship to Sadr and says he hasn’t spoken to him about the campaign. But clearly the two are friends; the screen saver on Esmaili’s high-tech cell phone is a digital photograph of Esmaili and Sadr mugging for the camera.

“Moqtada is a leader,” he says. “But he put his trust in us and made all of us leaders and urged us to follow our consciences.”

To potential voters, Esmaili fashions himself as a blend of pious religious disciple, learned intellectual and engaged community activist. Though he tops an electoral list called the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres (a name as unwieldy in Arabic as in English) and everyone he meets knows he’s running for office, he rarely asks for votes, discusses details of his platform or solicits funds.

At an event commemorating the 1999 death of the revered cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Sadr, father of Moqtada, Esmaili praises God and the prophet Muhammad and chants “Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!” along with those gathered.

The last stop of the day is an Islamic book fair at Mustansiriyah University, where he greets students and thoughtfully examines tracts on the Quran. Again he chooses not to explain to potential voters why he’s the best man for the job. He says he doesn’t need to.

“Iraqis are very bright,” he says. “They will ignore anyone who will try to pamper them and flatter them with politeness. But they will honor anybody who looks and acts from head to toe like an Iraqi.”

KRE/PH END RNS

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