Religion Again Holds Sway Among Shiite Voters

Hillah, Iraq — Here in Iraq's southern Shiite Muslim heartland, the issue of the day Thursday was the relationship between mosque and state.

Shiite voters who streamed to the polls to elect a full-term legislature cited religion and its place in government as the guiding factor in how they cast their ballots.

"Religion is not politics," said Hamza Abdel Hussein, a 65-year-old retiree who voted for secular Shiite candidate Mithal Alusi. "Our intention is to separate religion from government."

But Mohammed Saeed Mosawi, one of the first voters Thursday morning at Gomhouriya Middle School here, said, "The important thing is to satisfy God." His vote went to "the list of religion" — the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, which consists of 18 conservative religious parties.

Early, anecdotal evidence suggested that Mosawi's side had the edge.

Despite a strong push from secular Shiite candidates such as former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, there were indications that the alliance had defied expectations and maintained much of its base — despite opponents' complaints of inappropriate campaign tactics.

In the January elections for an interim government, the alliance coasted to victory on the strength of an endorsement by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose word is law for millions of Iraqi Shiites.

This time, with Sistani saying he favored no one, many expected that secular candidates would draw away much of the centrist Shiite vote.

But interviews in several southern cities indicated that the United Iraqi Alliance had convinced many voters that its slate had the endorsement of the marjaiyah, the powerful Najaf-based Shiite religious leadership.

"We're with the marjaiyah," said Amir Ali Jassim, who came to the polls in Hillah with his wife and five children. "We're very happy. It's a special day."

Throughout the south, Shiites packed polling stations to cast votes that, for many, represented another step in the formerly oppressed community's post-Saddam Hussein political ascendance. Having been through January's vote and an October constitutional referendum, residents seemed accustomed to the security lockdown and the ban on vehicular traffic that once again left Iraq's streets eerily empty.

Election officials in Hillah, Najaf and Basra reported minimal problems, although several politicians complained that the United Iraqi Alliance had openly defied electoral rules. They charged that poll volunteers had been intimidated and rallies staged after Wednesday's mandatory cutoff in campaigning.

Hatim Bachari, coordinator for the Allawi campaign in Basra, claimed that local police cars had broadcast pro-alliance messages on the streets. Electoral commission employees, he said, were placing alliance posters inside the voting centers.

How well the alliance performs in the south could largely determine the makeup of the government. The slate captured 140 of 275 seats in January, and some opponents fear a similar performance could embolden the bloc's leaders to try to create an Iran-style theocracy.

"That's what we're afraid of," said Abdel Hussein, the secular voter in Hillah. "We're worried about the future."

Secular candidates such as Allawi and former alliance member Ahmad Chalabi have targeted defecting Shiite moderates, hoping to chip away at the bloc's support base.

Exit polls in Hillah and elsewhere suggested solid support for the alliance. But Haidar Mohammed, a policeman and two-time voter for Allawi, suspected that many secular Iraqis would not admit how they had voted, fearing a backlash from their conservative neighbors.

"They're scared to say who they really voted for," he said.

Mohammed Reda Nejm declined to say how he voted but made it clear that he was against religion in politics.

"Religious extremism doesn't benefit us," said the 50-year-old telecommunications engineer. "Religion is important, but religion is for God. The government is for the people."

Allawi, Chalabi and others were gambling on a raft of defections from the alliance ranks. But some defections Thursday went in the other direction.

Ghaleb Jabber Mussawi, an unemployed Shiite voting in Baghdad's Adhamiya district, voted for Allawi in January. This time he switched to the alliance, saying he approved of the performance of coalition leader Ibrahim Jafari, an Islamic scholar and Allawi's successor as prime minister.

"I noticed that this period has been a lot better than the previous period," Mussawi said. "The security has improved, and there seems to be a little more economic activity."