An election riven with contradictions

It is supposed to be the Iraqis' chance to decide their destiny, but what if a new Shia-led governme

One man is a Saudi, the other comes from Iran. Neither appears on the ballot and neither is a pol-itician, but both wield enormous influence over the outcome of the Iraqi elections. "Anyone who participates in these elections . . . has committed apostasy against Allah," said Osama Bin Laden in a tape broadcast on al-Jazeera late last year. "The elections are ordered by America, under their aeroplanes, bombs and tanks."

The most revered figure among Iraq's majority Shia population, by contrast, has issued fatwas instructing all Iraqis, including women, to vote. According to the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, those who do not participate in the ballot are "infidels". His white-bearded face stares down from posters advertising his chosen list of candidates, alongside a candle, the symbol of Iraq emerging from darkness into light.

Optimists see the elections as a way Iraqis can finally have their say on how they want to be governed, as a first step towards autonomy and an end to occupation. Pessimists believe the ballot could spark civil war between Iraq's majority Shias - who see this as their chance for power - and the minority Sunnis who used to dominate Iraqi politics.

Extremist Sunnis who follow Osama Bin Laden regard Shias as apostates who have rejected the true Islam. The dispute dates back to the death of the Prophet in the seventh century, when his companions led the branch of the faith that became Sunni Islam, while followers of his son-in-law, Ali, broke away and formed the Shia sect. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose "young lions" are attacking polling stations and killing candidates, has described Shias as "the most evil of mankind . . . the lurking snakes and the crafty scorpions, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom". Understanding that elections favour the majority, he said on 23 January that the US had engineered the poll to get a Shia government into power.

"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy," he said, predicting that Shias would soon try to seize power in central and northern Iraq, the Sunni heartland. Iraq's Sunnis have not traditionally followed an extreme form of their religion, and most Iraqis deny that they discriminate between Shias and Sunnis. "Sunni and Shia are brothers, and we have lived together for years. The foreign terrorists brought these divisions," said Khairi Lazem Jaber al-Assadi, a Shia tribal elder from Basra.

In recent weeks, Sunni extremists have stepped up attacks on Shias. Taxis carrying Shias from Baghdad to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are frequently ambushed around Latifiyah; passengers are killed or kidnapped. The main Shia parties have militias, which are supposed to have been disbanded but can easily be reformed if their leaders decide that it is the only way to resist Sunni attacks.

Most Sunni-dominated parties are boycotting the elections, some saying that they have not had enough time to prepare, others that no fair election can be held under occupation. Fear and disillusion are expected to stop most Sunnis from voting. "There are so many places where people cannot participate, even if they wanted to," said Saad Jawad, a political commentator based in Baghdad. "Security gets worse every day, the nearer the elections get."

Those Iraqis who do go to the polls on 30 January will be presented with a giant ballot sheet listing 111 party slates. Each slate has a name, a symbol and a three-digit number, chosen at random so that no party will appear as number one. No candidates are named, but everyone knows that 285 is the slate of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, and 169 is the list of parties and individuals blessed by Ayatollah al-Sistani. Most of the others are scarcely known, and death threats have prevented many candidates from campaigning or revealing their names at all. The national assembly that will emerge from the election is meant to write a new constitution and select a three-person presidency. This will, in turn, choose a cabinet and a new prime minister.

In Basra, in southern Iraq, where Shias dominate, the electoral commission says that more than a million people have registered to vote, with such enthusiasm that some have returned several times to check that their names really are on the list. At a police post outside the port of Um Qasr, banners urge people to "Vote 169", the Sistani list. Inside the port, several naval officers favoured 285, the prime minister's list. Allawi has gained popularity among some Shias in recent months, because the assault on Fallujah was seen as decisive action against Sunni extremists.

"He will build Iraq psychologically and in every way so it will be strong like a castle," said Khalif Abdul Sadr, a naval translator. He dismissed al-Zarqawi's threats. "We will vote anyway," he said. Allawi visited the port just before the election, braving a storm to go out to sea. It was a prime ministerial rather than a campaign visit, but it underlined the advantage he has, with the resources of the state, including helicopters and American bodyguards. His party even has slick TV ads, showing a pretty woman donning a headscarf and a man polishing his shoes, ready to go out to vote. A merry, singing crowd charges into a polling station, waving ballot papers. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the singing and dancing in praise of Saddam Hussein that used to fill Iraq's airwaves.

"The Americans are preparing the way for Allawi to come back. There is no anti-American list," complains Saad Jawad. "There's no petrol, no water, no electricity and no security. Why should we vote for the people who have ruined our country? They are all part of the same clique. [Several people on the Sistani list have also served in the interim government.] The Americans are happy that not so many will vote, because it helps their candidates."

In Basra, divisions among the Shias are emerging; and earlier this month two politicians associated with Allawi were assassinated. Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand leader whose Mahdi militia besieged the holy city of Najaf last year, is neither boycotting nor participating. People close to him are standing on several different lists, but he appears to be biding his time, knowing he can call tens of thousands of impoverished Shia youth on to the streets when he wants. His "Office of the Martyr Sadr", dedicated to his father and uncle, who were killed by Saddam's regime, is the most prominent political organisation in most southern towns. Even the courtroom in Basra sports his poster - no one dares or wants to take it down.

Ayatollah al-Sistani expounds a form of Shia thinking called "quietism", which maintains that religion and politics should be separate. None the less, the perception on the street is that a vote for 169 is an expression of religious devotion. The leading politician on the list is a cleric called Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was exiled in Iran during the Saddam years.

Among Sunnis and secular Shias, there is fear that Iran is backing the Sistani list. "The Iranian influence is very big," said one commentator, who feared being named. "A lot of people are forging documents and coming over the border to vote." British intelligence sources deny any evidence of an influx of Iranians; but fear of Iran is part of the Iraqi psyche. The rulers of Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are also nervous at the growing power of the Shias and - in their view - the consequent advantage to Iran.

Iraq's election exposes the contradictions at the heart of the Americans' policy in the Middle East. The Shias, who were their allies against Saddam Hussein, have tolerated if not supported the occupation. But the Bush administration may yet find that democracy does not work to America's advantage. A Shia-dominated government would certainly be close to Iran - the country that George W Bush's senior aides are fingering as their next target for "regime change". Allawi - a secular Shia - is America's man, but the Sistani list is widely expected to gain more votes.

"As our ruling leader Ayatollah al-Sistani says, after the elections and once a government has been formed, it should be brought to the attention of the American and British forces that it is time for them to leave," said Khairi Lazem Jaber al-Assadi, the tribal elder from Basra. The true test of the democracy the Americans say they have brought to Iraq may not be the election itself, but the US response if Iraq's chosen leaders go against those who enabled them to come to power.

Lindsey Hilsum is the Channel 4 News international editor