Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric appealed to Iraqis on Monday to go to the polls in this month's elections but, in a bid to distance himself from religious parties, emphasized he was not supporting any particular candidates.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani enjoys massive support among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, and his statement appeared designed to foil persistent attempts by the country's largest Shiite party — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — to give the impression that it has his backing.
"The religious leadership stands an equal distance away from all candidates in these elections, but it stresses at the same time that voters must, after thorough checks and examination, choose those who are worthy of becoming members of provincial councils," the Iranian-born al-Sistani said.
He said worthy candidates must be efficient, honest and sincere.
Provincial councils manage the day to day affairs of Iraq's provinces and when the current members were chosen in 2005, the minority Sunnis largely boycotted elections. New councils with a more equitable distribution of seats representing society's makeup are considered a vital step in restoring political stability to the country.
The Supreme Council, led by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has in past elections used al-Sistani's image on campaign posters to rally the cleric's supporters to its cause. The use of religious symbols or sites in campaigning has been banned in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, but party leaders have been making a point of mentioning al-Sistani in their campaign speeches to remind voters of their links to the cleric.
Iraqis are set to choose members of ruling councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces on Jan. 31. More than 14,000 candidates are running for 444 council seats. Iraqi Kurds have delayed the balloting in the three provinces of their self-ruled region.
Balloting was also suspended in the province around Kirkuk, after the area's major ethnic groups failed to agree on a power-sharing formula.
While preparations moved ahead for the elections, Iraq's political process suffered another setback when parliament announced it was adjourning until next month after failing to choose a new speaker.
The Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani resigned last month amid widespread complaints about his erratic behavior. Under a power-sharing formula between the country's main ethnic and religious groups, his replacement must be a Sunni Arab. Parliament's main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has been unable to agree on a candidate.
Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, said sessions would be adjourned until Feb. 3, and a secret vote on various nominees would be held the next day. If there is no clear majority for one candidate, a second vote will be held on Feb. 5, he said in a statement.
The U.S. military has warned that insurgents are expected to step up attacks in the days before and after the Jan. 31 vote. Already, sporadic elections-related violence has been reported.
A roadside bomb struck a crew of Iraqis putting up posters for a Shiite candidate late Sunday in eastern Baghdad, wounding eight people. Latif Abu Mohammed, a 37-year-old construction worker who was injured in the attack, said his crew had been waiting until nightfall to put up campaign posters to avoid being spotted by rival parties.
"We are construction workers hired by a candidate to put his portraits on walls. We have nothing to do with politics," said Abu Mohammed.
In other violence, a bomb attached to a car exploded Monday in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing a police officer who was on his way to work at a passport office and wounding seven other people, police and hospital officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The independent election commission, meanwhile, announced Monday the failure of a bid by a prominent Shiite lawmaker to gather enough support to call a referendum on self-rule for Basra, Iraq's second largest city.
Faraj al-Haidari, the commission's chief, told The Associated Press that Wail Abdul-Latif failed to get the required number of signatures in support of a self-rule referendum during a petition drive that began last month.
Politicians in Basra say the Supreme Council, which supports establishing a self-rule southern region, worked against Abdul-Latif's bid. Supreme Council politicians denied that but acknowledged their party did not think the time was right for self-rule in Basra.
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