BAGHDAD, Iraq – Under the guidance of Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Shiite parties presented a list Thursday of 228 candidates for next month's parliamentary elections. Minority Sunni Arabs, who had been favored under Saddam Hussein (search), must now decide whether to join the race or renounce a vote that will help determine the country's future.
The announcement of the list of 23 parties, dubbed the United Iraqi Alliance (search), followed weeks of haggling. Members of participating groups said the coalition's platform would include a call for working toward the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq.
"There must be a timetable for this," said Hussein al-Mousawi, an official of the Shiite Political Council, an umbrella group that has some parties represented in the alliance. The candidates list includes two powerful Shiite parties, as well as an array of independent Sunni tribal figures, Shiite Kurdish groups and members of smaller movements.
Importantly, the roster does not include the movement of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), who appeared to be waiting to see whether the vote will be considered legitimate before he joins the political process. With violence roiling the country and key Sunni leaders demanding the Jan. 30 vote be put off, a credible election is by no means certain.
There were already signs that Sunni ranks were breaking: One group that had called for a delay, the Iraqi Islamic Party, quietly submitted a 275-candidate list Thursday. Party officials told The Associated Press they wanted to reserve the right to take part in the vote if the election is not postponed.
In violence Thursday, seven Iraqis were killed in clashes in Baghdad and the volatile western city of Ramadi.
A car bomb also rocked a busy vegetable market in the northern city of Mosul, wounding two civilians, while a U.S. soldier was wounded by a roadside bomb in the capital.
Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), appointed the committee that set up the 228-candidate list. He has been working to unite Iraq's majority Shiites ahead of the vote to ensure victory, and include representatives from Iraq's other diverse communities. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people.
The major Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Dawa Party, were on the list. Both have strong links with Iran, a Shiite but non-Arab neighbor.
The 228 candidates also include independent Sunni Muslims, members of the Yazidis minority religious sect, and a Turkomen movement, among others. Also listed are members of the Iraqi National Congress, led by former exile and one-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.
"I think that this list is a patriotic list. We hope that Iraqi people will back this list," said Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, head of the powerful Sunni Shemar tribes in Mosul.
Ali al-Adeeb of the Islamic Dawa Party said members hoped that forming the alliance "was a step forward in the political process through its participation in the coming elections for a beloved and honorable Iraq that is free from any foreign influence and ... enjoys sovereignty."
Al-Mousawi said the group's platform comprises 23 points, including that members "should work on the withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq."
Abiding by electoral law, at least a third of the candidates on the list are women.
The presentation of the candidates list puts the focus on the Sunni Arab minority, some of whom have said the country is far too unsafe to hold a vote. They must decide whether to risk boycotting the vote, which could leave them with little power if the election goes ahead.
The announcement by the Iraqi Islamic Party to submit a list of candidates suggested Sunni Arabs have begun to see the vote as inevitable. Senior party official Ayad al-Samarrai said the move was meant to prove the party was serious about elections, but will need to evaluate the situation further before deciding whether to contest the vote.
"We're reserving our right" to participate in the elections, al-Samarrai said. "Toward the end, we will decide."
Sunni clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars urged Sunnis to boycott the election to protest last month's U.S.-led assault on the then-insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The influential religious group called plans to hold the vote in January "madness."
"The association's stance toward the elections is firm and unchanged — we will not take a part in these elections because ... no elections can be held under the pressure of the Americans and the ... deteriorating security situation," said Sheik Mohammed Bashar al-Faidhi, an association spokesman.
The main Kurdish parties will contest the vote with their own unified list, Kurdish leaders have said.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged all sides in Iraq to come together and start talking to each other so the elections will be inclusive and lead to a stable and unified country at peace.
"The aim should be to create incentives for Iraqis to converge toward national reconciliation and peaceful political competition through the ballot box," he said Thursday in a report to the Security Council.
The election will be Iraq's first popular vote in decades. Iraqis will choose a 275-member assembly that will write a permanent constitution. If adopted in a referendum next year, the constitution would form the legal basis for another general election to be held by Dec. 15, 2005.
Voting will be done by party list, and individual candidates may also run. The number of seats coalitions win will be determined by the percentage of the vote they get.
Officials say separate candidate lists are also being compiled by aides to President Ghazi al-Yawer and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) — which would possibly draw some Shiites away from the alliance. Al-Yawer is a Sunni but his list his expected to include some Shiites.
The biggest wild card among the Shiites is al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric. An aide said al-Sadr's movement had been invited to take part; he suggested the group refused because it wants to see how the vote plays out.
"If the election results will be beneficial, we will have another chance to join the elections in the coming phases, and if their results are bad it will be recorded that we did not support the occupation's existence," said Hassan al-Zarqani, al-Sadr's representative in Beirut, Lebanon.
Al-Sadr's movement, which wields wide grassroots support, especially among impoverished and young Shiites, has sent mixed messages about its role in the country's political process. There were signs that while al-Sadr and his top aides were not participating, the list had the support of some of his followers.
Allawi, the prime minister, distanced himself from two newspaper interviews that quoted him as saying the vote could take place over as many as three weeks. He had reportedly told a Swiss and a Belgian newspaper that a staggered vote would be a good way to address security concerns.
"We would like to clarify and correct those reports," Allawi's office said in a statement. "The Iraqi government ... is very well aware of the importance of holding elections on time."