As Iraqi Campaign Begins, a Bomb Kills 9 in Karbala

By JOHN F. BURNS and ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

December 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 15 - Iraq's election campaign season opened on a violent note when a bomb exploded Wednesday near the gate of one of Iraq's holiest Shiite shrines in the pilgrim city of Karbala, killing 9 people and wounding 40, including a top aide to the country's senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The attack occurred toward dusk, about 90 minutes after the 4 p.m. deadline for political groups to register their slates of candidates for the elections.

The registration deadline marked the official start of 44 days of campaigning, set to end two days before an estimated 14 million eligible voters go to the polls Jan. 30. They will choose among slates from more than 80 political coalitions, individual parties and other groups to fill 275 seats in a provisional national assembly.

No group claimed responsibility for the bomb in Karbala, the first of its kind in several months there and its sister city, Najaf.

But hours later, a spokesman for Ayatollah Sistani appeared on Al Jazeera, the satellite television channel, to say the attack appeared to be an attempt to assassinate the Sistani aide, Sheik Abdul Mahdee al-Karbalayee, who was walking to evening prayers when the blast struck. He was said by police officials to be under treatment in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.

The scene in Karbala was one that has become a coda of daily life in many parts of the country, with ambulances wailing and shattered glass and human remains scattered across the broad intersection in front of the golden-domed Shrine of Hussein. Doctors attended to the wounded in the early winter darkness.

The bombing raised the possibility of an election campaign punctuated not just by a heightening tempo of insurgent attacks but also by violence between Iraq's majority Shiite and minority Sunni populations, or among rival Shiite religious groups.

The interim defense minister, Hazim al-Shalaan, added a bitter note to the campaign period's start, with warnings about an alliance of Shiite religious groups that is a likely front-runner.

Mr. Shalaan, an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein and now an ally of the American-backed interim prime minister, told Iraqi and American military officers that the alliance, which has the tacit backing of Ayatollah Sistani and of Iran's ruling Shiite clergy, was an "Iranian list" and a stalking horse for Iranian ambitions to re-establish an ancient Persian dominion over Iraq.

"Iran is the big link in terrorism in Iraq," he said at a meeting in the heavily protected Green Zone in Baghdad.

He said that Iran and Islamic insurgents wanted "turbaned clerics to rule," and that an Iraqi nuclear scientist favored to be the Shiite alliance's prime minister if it wins, Hussein Shahristani, was Iran's pawn.

Mr. Shalaan added: "I want to warn that Iran is the most dangerous enemy to Iraq and to all Arabs. Shahristani went to Iran after 1991 and worked on building an Iranian nuclear reactor. We will not let him come back and become an Iraqi prime minister."

In Washington, President Bush, asked about reports of efforts by Iran, as well as by Syria, to sway the elections, told reporters: "We have made it very clear to the countries in the neighborhood, including the two you mentioned, that we expect there to be help in establishing a society in which people are able to elect their leaders; and that we expect people to work with the Iraqi interim government to enforce border, to stop the flow of people and money that aim to help these terrorists. We made that very clear. And we'll continue to make it clear."

Many political groups, mostly Sunni, have urged that the elections be postponed until security improves. Some groups entering last-minute registrations simultaneously warned that insurgent groups could cause blood baths. But other groups, mainly of Shiites suppressed for generations by Iraq's traditional Sunni rulers, insist the elections stay on schedule.

But with the registration deadline past, the prospect of a postponement, or even a stretching out of voting over days or weeks to allow more concentrated security at the 9,000 polling stations, as some groups have urged, appeared to have receded.

Iraq's electoral commission announced that its final registration list totaled more than 230 political groups. They include 9 alliances, which are expected to pull the largest vote share; 47 parties competing alone; and 23 other political entities.

A commission spokesman said more than 3,500 candidates would be competing for seats in a transitional national assembly, which is to draft a constitution under which a permanent government is to be elected by Dec. 15, 2005. The number of seats each slate will get depends on its percentage of the national vote.

The lineup of major contenders was completed with the formal entry of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, 59, at the head of a six-party coalition of mainly secular Shiite and Sunni groups. The Allawi group is one of the few contenders thought capable of mounting

a realistic challenge to the Sistani-backed early favorite, the 22-party United Iraqi Alliance, which is led by the two most powerful Shiite religious groups, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party.

One wing of Dawa is thought, like the Supreme Council, to have the covert backing of Iran's rulers.

With most groups acknowledging that the insurgency will make it largely impossible to hold Western-style rallies, campaigning is expected to consist mainly of television pitches. That arena may favor Dr. Allawi, with easier access to the country's two main broadcast television channels, one of them government-operated and the other American-financed.

Dr. Allawi's campaign started on an unpropitious note, when American and Iraqi forces closed off sections of central Baghdad so he could leave the Green Zone and cross the Tigris River to declare his candidacy at a sports club. But Western reporters judged the three-mile journey to be too hazardous in the bus provided by Allawi aides, and remained behind.

Five hours later, he stood before fewer than 60 people, about half of whom were his own aides. With American bodyguards in flak jackets and cradling automatic weapons patrolling the club's auditorium, Dr. Allawi read a brief statement and returned hastily to the Green Zone.

His statement emphasized the interim government's efforts to defeat the insurgents, and the campaign slogan emblazoned on the auditorium platform was "powerful leadership," both indications that he intends to project himself as the strongman that many Iraqis, desperate for security, say they crave.

Dr. Allawi's aides offered no detailed list of the 200 candidates put forward by his group, which will campaign as the Iraqi List. Others with him on the platform Wednesday included a smattering of tribal sheiks in traditional tribal dress, including at least one Sunni leader from northern Iraq, and a moderate Shiite cleric, Hussain al-Sadr, who won favor with the Americans during the 15 months of formal occupation that ended this summer. Two women were also on the platform, one of them a minister in Dr. Allawi's interim cabinet.

At its core, the group appears to be composed mainly of members of Dr. Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, a C.I.A-backed group that was formed during his exile years in London, mainly from former Baath Party members like himself who broke with Mr. Hussein.

Two allies he had courted decided at the last minute to run separately. One was Adnan Pachachi, the 81-year-old former foreign minister, who is also favored by the Americans. He registered his Iraqi Democratic Gathering, made up of Sunni and Shiite politicians and professionals. The other was Iraq's faction-ridden Communist Party, which will run as the Union of the People with other leftists.