BAGHDAD, Iraq – A bomb targeting a prominent Shiite cleric killed seven people outside one of southern Iraq's holiest shrines Wednesday as campaigning began for Iraq's first post-Saddam elections — a vote that is going ahead despite attacks and assassinations by Sunni insurgents.
The attack in the heartland of Iraq's majority Shiite population wounded the cleric, Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalayee, and was a stark reminder of the risks for the six-week campaign leading to a Jan. 30 vote for a 275-member National Assembly.
Unlike most Western countries where election campaigns kick off with media blitzes and rallies, there was little fanfare in Iraq (search), particularly in the capital, where many fear large gatherings in public places could be invitations for militant attacks.
The campaigning began as a government official said Saddam Hussein's (search) notorious right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), known as "Chemical Ali," will be the first among 12 former regime members to appear at an initial investigative court hearing next week to face charges for crimes allegedly committed during Saddam's 35-year dictatorship.
Formal indictments could be issued next month — just ahead of the elections.
On the final day of candidate registration, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and Washington favorite, announced his 240-member list of candidates, pitting him against the slate embraced by Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. About 90 parties and political movements have applied to be represented on ballots.
Heading the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance list is Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and chief of its armed wing, the Iran-based Badr Brigade, during Saddam's rule.
With the threatened Sunni boycott, the lists submitted make Allawi and al-Hakim the leading contenders to take top jobs in Iraq's next government.
In the election, each faction will win a number of seats in the assembly proportional to the percentage of votes it gets nationwide — meaning the highest-listed candidates on each roster are most likely to be elected. The groups ending up strongest in the assembly will be in a powerful position as the body will elect a president and two deputies, who will nominate the prime minister. The assembly will also draw up a new constitution.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population and are expected to dominate the polls. Such an outcome worries some secular Shiites here, along with neighboring Sunni-dominated countries and the United States, who are wary of a Shiite-run Iraq growing closer to its eastern neighbor, Iran.
"Iran will not be indifferent to Iraq's future and it cannot ignore the country because any developments there would have an impact on the internal affairs of Iran," Hasan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's top diplomat in Baghdad, told his country's official Islamic Republic News Agency.
In a move likely to inflame election tensions, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan accused Iran and Syria of cooperating with former Saddam security operatives and Iraq's top terror figure, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Iran, Shaalan said, is the "No. 1 enemy."
"They are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule in Iraq," the defense minister said.
Iran and Syria reject such claims.
Shaalan also sharply criticized the United Iraqi Alliance for links to Iran and described a key coalition member, nuclear physicist Hussain al-Shahristani, as the "leader of an Iranian list."
His remarks appeared timed to coincide with election announcements by Allawi and interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, who also filed a list of about 80 elections candidates. Allawi, a secular Shiite, and al-Yawer, a Sunni leader supported by Shaalan, are obvious political opponents of conservative Shiites like al-Hakim with close affiliations to Iran.
Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman, heads a list of 70 candidates. His group, like the Iraqi Islamic Party, decided to contest the polls and ensure Sunni participation despite boycott calls by some leading clerics.
Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in a briefing that there were indications many Sunnis want to take part in the vote.
"We just don't know how large that is or how much that will grow as we move toward January; nor do we know how effective the intimidation campaign will be as it continues," he said.
Smith said security problems were limited to only a few of Iraq's 18 provinces. "In 14 of those provinces we could probably have elections tomorrow," he said.
An al-Sistani spokesman said the Karbala attack was an assassination attempt on the cleric's representative in that city, al-Karbalayee, who was wounded in the blast at the western gate of the gold-domed Imam Hussein Shrine.
Seven people died and 31 were wounded, a hospital official said.
"Targeting him is part of a series of attempts to create sectarian strife in Iraq by targeting the Shiite symbols," said United Iraqi Alliance candidate Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer. Militants want to provoke Shiites into reacting "so that the political process would collapse," he said.
In Fallujah, U.S. warplanes dropped nine bombs on insurgent positions in that Anbar provincial city, which American military commanders believed had been conquered after the bloody weeklong battle against insurgents based there last month.
Sunni leaders have cited the violence in Fallujah as the reason to boycott the elections, but U.S. and Iraqi authorities are determined to proceed, believing any delay would be a victory for the insurgents.
"This is the first time in Iraq that free and democratic elections will be held and that competition takes place without any pressure from the government," said Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.
Allawi, who has survived several assassination attempts, made his elections announcement on national TV behind the fortified walls of Baghdad's Green Zone, which houses the interim government and foreign missions like the U.S. Embassy.
Standing alongside running mates including women in veils and men in traditional Arab robes or dapper suits, Allawi said his party would push for the eventual withdrawal of multinational forces "according to a set timetable."
"By depending on God, and with a firm determination and based on strong confidence in the abilities of our people, we are capable of confronting the difficulties and challenges and of making a bright future for our honorable people," he said.