Shias wait for elections, or war

Observations on Iraq

On a cold winter's night in Iraq, a young shopkeeper stands outside in the driving rain, his storefront illuminated by a sputtering petrol gen-erator. It is a flickering pool of light in a city of darkness. Basra has been getting barely four hours of electricity a day - one year after the British army announced the restoration of round-the-clock power.

The young owner, Mohamed Hussein, shows us a poster, plastered with a picture of a Shia saint, that announces the Iraqi elections on 30 January. As we talk, a Kalashnikov bullet echoes across the street. The British soldiers with me drop down for cover. Hussein does not flinch. "There is not a single person in this city that will not vote in January," he says. "We have waited all our lives for this moment."

Talking to Shias in southern Iraq, you get the impression that however many suicide bombers or assassins stalk the streets, they will cast their vote. Their leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has ordered them to vote: they will obey.

For Shias - at least 60 per cent of Iraq's population - the importance of 30 January dates back to the defining moment of Shi-ism itself: the martyrdom (and hence defeat) of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in 680AD. Through the centuries since, the Shias have never held sway in Mesopotamia. All their insurrections since the collapse of the Ottoman empire have failed - against the British in 1920 or against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

So Shias, from illiterate Marsh Arabs to the thin ranks of Shia intellectuals, share the belief that these elections are their main chance. And that is why, conscious of how George W Bush's father abandoned them to be slaughtered by Saddam in 1991, they are so sensitive about talk of delays.

The Americans worry more about the outcome of the vote than whether it will take place. Their big fear is that if the Sunnis boycott the poll, the agents and collaborators of Iran will come in, riding on the back of a large Shia victory. US politics in the Middle East has been geared for decades to supporting the Sunni establishment of sheikhs and generals who have safely guarded world oil supply.

The biggest electoral force, the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition created on the orders of al-Sistani, reads like a checklist of Tehran-friendly politicians who want the imposition of sharia law and clerical rule. It is led by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was formerly based in Tehran and whose leader, Sayed Mohamad Baqir al-Hakim, spent years in Iran. It also includes the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, which is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Dawa Party, whose leaders were also exiled in Iran, and the Iraqi National Congress - whose leader, Ahmad Chalabi, US officials accuse of being an Iranian agent.

Yet al-Sistani is rowing back from ordering Shias to vote for the coalition that he helped to create. And even in places such as Basra, in the Shia heartland, Iran is unpopular. Also comforting for the Americans is that their creation, the interim prime minister and secular Shia Iyad Allawi, has become immensely popular in the south for giving US marines the green light for their assault on Fallujah. In the face of disorder, the desire for security seems universal. Again and again, I heard: "We like Allawi because he is a strong man."

Tribal politics still count. Amer al-Fa'azi, a leading member of the Dawa Islamic Movement but also head of the 140,000-strong Beni Amer tribe, said: "I don't need to campaign for these people to support me. Of course they will all vote for me, because of my tribal relationship. It's not like in Europe."

So far, despite one provocation after another, Shias have rarely retaliated with sectarian attacks, nor, despite the failure of US and British reconstruction promises, have many joined in violence against the coalition. When the Shia Mahdi army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, declared war on the western coalition, most of the well-armed Shia militia refused to join their action. But there are warning signs of a sectarian civil war - in, for example, the increased rarity with which Sunnis and Shias worship at each other's mosques. And a little-noticed Shia militia, calling itself the "angry brigade", formed in December to organise reprisal attacks on Sunnis.

If the promise of democracy - the one clear gain of the invasion - fails to deliver for the silent, patient majority of Shia Iraqis, who have endured so much in return for so little, they may finally pick up their rifles and go to war.