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As Iraq prepares for the upcoming elections on December 15, a number of leading politicians and influential religious leaders are promoting various coalition candidates with the hope of gaining more seats in parliament. Alliances have been forged between the leading Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties, and several prominent and familiar names will be on the ballot. Some of the powerbrokers behind the national political scene in Iraq include:
Iraq’s former prime minister, Allawi is a well-connected politician who enjoys U.S. backing for his secular principles. He was born in 1945 to a prominent Shiite merchant family, studied to be a neurologist, and joined the Baath Party before its rise to power in Iraq. In the early 1970s, he fell out of favor with Saddam Hussein, who many believe ordered Allawi’s assassination. The attempt failed but left him severely wounded. He was then exiled to the United Kingdom, where he lived until Saddam’s fall in 2003. During his tenure, Allawi’s critics say, the Iraqi Interim government was marked by corruption. He recently created the Iraqi National List coalition, a group of mostly secular Shiite and Sunni Arab parties, to compete in the December 15 parliamentary elections.
A longtime figure in Iraqi politics, Barzani has led the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since the death of his father Mullah Mustafa in 1979. The KDP has been a dominant force in Iraqi politics for more than fifty years, and Barzani has led the group through decades of conflict with Saddam’s government and the rival Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Barzani is also the commander of the peshmerga, a Kurdish militia with numbers in the tens of thousands that controls much of northwestern Iraq. He’s worked closely with President Jalal Talabani—a fellow Kurd and leader of the PUK. As the result of a deal struck by the two men to give Kurds as much autonomy in Iraq as possible, Barzani was named the regional president of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.
One of the more controversial figures in Iraqi politics, Chalabi gained widespread notoriety ahead of the U.S. invasion as a favorite of the United States. The relationship nearly severed after the administration withdrew its support of Chalabi amid claims he was one of the sources for faulty intelligence about Iraq’s WMD program—an accusation he denies. In 2004, his home was raided and arrests warrants were issued against him while he was out of the country. The charges, allegedly for counterfeiting, were quietly dropped by an Iraqi judge. He also is wanted by the government of Jordan for alleged misappropriation of banking funds. Despite the myriad accusations and complications, Chalabi has risen to serve as one of two deputy prime ministers in Ibrahim Jaafari’s cabinet. A secular Shiite, Chalabi was born to a wealthy banking family and lived mainly in the U.S and London, where he was educated. Chalabi broke with the Iraqi National Congress, which he founded in 1992 while in exile, and started the National Congress Coalition, a group of mostly Shiite and Sunni candidates that considers itself a less Islamist alternative to the United Iraqi Alliance.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
A popular opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Hakim is the chairman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded as a guerilla movement in 1982 in Iran. Its militia, the Badr Brigades, staged armed attacks against Hussein’s regime. Hakim’s beliefs align with Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s, in that he supports a secular democracy that recognizes the importance of Islam but bars clerics from overtly exercising political power. He lived in exile in Iran for more than twenty years before returning to Iraq to serve as a member of the Governing Council and advocates autonomy for the south and close relations with Iran.
Hashimi heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, which now operates under the umbrella of the Iraqi Accord Front—the first major alliance established within the Sunni Arab community. He is loosely associated with Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and his party was the sole Sunni group to participate in the January 2005 elections. Hashimi strongly opposes autonomous regions in Iraq, supports removing Shiite militiamen from security forces, and undoing the purging of former Baathists.
Prime Minister Jaafari is a member of the Dawa Party, one of the oldest Shiite Islamist movements in Iraq. Jaafari emerged as a favorite of the Iraqi people in the January 2005 elections. Jaafari was born in Karbala in 1947; he was educated as a medical doctor and joined the Dawa party to fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s. He was first exiled to Iran and later to the United Kingdom and did not make an appearance again until he became the preferred candidate for the January 2005 elections as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite coalition in Iraq. He has openly made statements advocating religious law in Iraq.
A senior member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, Jabr currently serves as Iraq’s minister of interior, a prominent post. He previously served as minister of housing and reconstruction in Iraq’s first interim government. A Turkmen, Jabr is described as an "old-time revolutionary." He is a Shiite activist from Maisan province and was exiled by Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1970s. Jabr later joined the SCIRI and headed the organization’s Syrian and Lebanese offices during the 1990s. He holds a degree in civil engineering from Baghdad University. Jabr stands accused by Sunnis of allowing militia members in Iraq’s police force and of turning a blind eye to prisoner abuse.
Adel Abdul Mahdi
One of two current vice presidents and a former finance minister in the Iraqi interim government, Mahdi is a candidate for the United Iraqi Alliance and is a member of SCIRI. He is a trained economist who left Iraq in 1969 for exile in France after being arrested, tortured, and jailed under Saddam’s regime. He has two masters’ degrees from universities in France, where he worked for several think tanks and edited magazines in French and Arabic, and even dabbled in Maoism before returning to Iraq and "finding" Islam again. Mahdi favors an Islamic-style democracy, with strong regional governments, and opposes setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
At one time, Pachachi was believed to be the United Nations’ favorite to lead post-war Iraq. One of the few prominent secular Sunni figures, he heads the Assembly of Independent Democrats, a coalition of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Christians, which competed in the January 2005 elections. He served as foreign minister before Iraq’s 1968 Baathist coup. Pachachi also served on the Iraqi Governing Council after the March 2003 invasion and later turned down an offer to be president of the interim government.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has denounced the interim government and openly called for the removal of foreign troops, whom he calls "invaders." In 2003, he established a militia called the Mahdi Army, a group pledging to protect Shiite religious authorities in Najaf, which led an uprising against U.S. forces. Poor Shiites in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite slum outside Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, account for most of his followers. They regard him as a religious figurehead but also a symbol of the resistance to the United States. Believed to be in his thirties, Sadr was influenced by his father, Muhammed Sadiq Sadr, a senior Shiite cleric and opponent of Saddam Hussein’s who was assassinated in 1999, allegedly by the Iraqi Government.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Iraq’s most senior Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is one of only five living grand ayatollahs. He’s known for his more moderate views—he supports an Islamic state but rejects an Iranian-style theocracy. He is revered by conservative and mainstream Shiites, both in Iraq and abroad, for his authority to interpret Islamic law and provide guidance on day-to-day matters. He tacitly supports the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite coalition that supports strong regional governments, prosecuting ex-Baathists, and strictly enforcing the constitution. At times he’s been critical of the U.S. handling of post-war Iraq. He has remained a critical figure on the national political stage; in 2004, he was instrumental in ending the three-week standoff between Sadr’s army and U.S. and coalition forces. His penchant for speaking through aides rather than directly to the media has left some question as to where, exactly, he stands on some issues.
Leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and current President of Iraq, Talabani’s main goal is to protect the autonomy of Iraq’s northern region. As a youth, Talabani was a founding member and leader of the KDP’s Kurdistan Students Union. In 1961, he joined the Kurdish revolt against the government. He founded the PUK in 1975 and began an armed campaign against the central government. But in 1988 Talabani was forced to seek refuge, which he did in Iran. As leader of the PUK, he commands a militia force of more than 20,000 men.