Iraq may ban images of religious figures in poll

Baghdad, Iraq - Iraq's cabinet wants to ban parties from using pictures of figures who are not running for office at campaign rallies in local elections, the government's spokesman said on Thursday.

Campaigning in places of worship would also be prohibited, a statement from government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, adding that the bans were among amendments to a provincial elections law being submitted to parliament for a vote.

Pictures of religious leaders are almost always displayed at Shi'ite political gatherings and during election campaigns.

Political sources said the ban was mainly aimed at preventing Shi'ite groups from using posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shi'ite religious leader in Iraq.

In past polls, some Shi'ite factions have displayed posters of Sistani alongside images of their candidates to appeal to voters' religious sentiments, implying they have his blessing.

Dabbagh said in the statement the government wanted "to ban using posters and promoting figures who are not taking part in the elections campaign."

The ban could also hurt the movement of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia fought battles with government forces in April and May, before a truce.

His political party is not running but is seeking to gain influence by backing other candidates.

Pictures of the young cleric alongside those of his late father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a revered Shi'ite cleric, adorn his strongholds in Baghdad and southern Shi'ite cities like Najaf. Many of his political offices are attached to mosques.

But Sadr's supporters said they were fully behind the ban, out of respect for Sistani's wish to remain independent of politics, and also because pictures of clerics had in the past been used by candidates the clerics did not support.

"We put forward this suggestion to prohibit use of religious figures, mosques and Shi'ite community halls for election purposes," said Ahmed al-Massoudi, a senior member of Sadr's movement in parliament, told Reuters.


The polls are scheduled for October 1 but are likely to be delayed because of disputes in parliament that have held up getting a draft provincial electoral law passed.

Analysts say the elections are likely to be the battleground for a power struggle among majority Shi'ites, mostly in the oil-rich south, where Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Maliki ally, are vying for dominance.

Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a lawmaker from the Supreme Council, which has used images of Sistani on campaign posters in the past, said his party would oppose the ban. "This ban is in contradiction of the freedoms granted by the constitution."

Addressing journalists in Baghdad on Thursday, Dabbagh said the government was keen for the polls to be held by October 1. He urged parliament to pass the revised electoral bill quickly.

"The government wants elections held on the agreed date. If there is a postponement, it will be a matter of weeks," he said.

Washington is keen to get elections under way to promote reconciliation by boosting the participation of minority Sunni Arabs. Sunni Arabs boycotted local polls in January 2005.

"Reconciliation is ... critical to bring us around and we're at the very start of it right now," Major-General Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, which has large Sunni Arab population, told Reuters on Wednesday.