Thursday, January 29, 2009

Independents sense opening in Basra poll - Financial Times

By Andrew England in Basra

With his flashy yellow tie and smart business suit decorated with a lapel badge emblazoned with his smiling face, Hatem Albachary looks very much the part of the campaigning politician.

He talks of the need to resolve Basra’s dire electricity problems, including a plan to lure investors to buy and run generators, tackling the city’s high unemployment and improving rundown water services.

Mr Albachary hopes to dilute the influence of the religious parties that have dominated Basra and the other southern provinces since the 2005 elections.

“After 2005, what benefits did the normal Iraqi, the poor Iraqi, get?” he says “Nothing. We are looking forward to our next generation – it’s very important we get the right leaders.”

Mr Albachary is one of scores of “independents” contesting Saturday’s elections, hoping to exploit any weaknesses in the support for the Shia Islamist parties that have run the city and been blamed for disastrous corruption and violence.

The independents claim to include technocrats and businessmen that would, if elected, focus on rebuilding Basra, which is critical to the economic health of Iraq.

With its vast oil reserves and the nation’s only access to the sea, Basra highlights the potential of a stable Iraq. But instead the city became a battleground for rival Shia factions fighting for control of its resources.

Influence in the city had been divided between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest and strongest of the Shia groups, the Dawa party of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, Fadhila, a smaller party that holds the governorship in Basra, and the Sadrist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric.

Before a semblance of security was restored after the Iraqi military, backed by US and UK forces, launched a massive offensive against the militias last March, different factions controlled the port, the security services and the streets, spreading fear throughout the city. In spite of the bloody history, the main Shia parties are expected to retain ultimate control of the south, partly because of their resources. But even officials with those movements accept that there is a desire for real change.

“People want something to touch with their hands, not promises,” says Shawqi al-Maliki, a candidate for the Supreme Council. “The elections will change the policy map. The winning party will take new views when they serve the people and they will co-operate with them.”

If the Supreme Council does well at the polls, the result could bolster its plans to achieve greater autonomy for the nine southern provinces. It is a position that puts it at odds with the Dawa party, which favours a strong central government and may benefit from the improved standing of Mr Maliki, the prime minister.

Click here for the article on the FT

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