Iraq's Islamic Party Aims to Remake Image

Baghdad, Iraq - With a March date set for parliamentary polls, Iraqi politicians are turning their attention to the campaign trail. For members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the country's most powerful political parties, that means assuming an unfamiliar role: underdogs.

ISCI, long a dissident group based in Iran, grew into one of post-Saddam Iraq's most powerful political forces. But after a number of stumbles this year, party officials say they have been humbled and will be working to win back support.

"There has been a backfire in all directions," says Iraq's Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, a senior ISCI officer.

For the current campaign, ISCI officials promised to drop their religious symbolism and stump on issues such as jobs, security and power availability. They also have named a new leader: Ammar al-Hakim, the 38-year-old son of the party's longtime chief, Abdul Aziz, who died this past summer.

ISCI's fate in the elections will have reverberations far beyond party headquarters. The vote could be a barometer on whether the sectarian and ethnic identity that symbolized post-Saddam Iraq will continue to drive politics here. It will also help determine whether, as the U.S. draws down troops next year, Iranian influence grows or stagnates.

ISCI leads a slate of mostly Shiite parties that Tehran encouraged to run as a bloc, according to alliance officials. They are competing against a number of other ethnic- and sect-based parties, along with new, nonsectarian coalitions, like one formed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

ISCI officials acknowledge ties to Tehran, but play down their significance. "We have very close ties to Iran, that is true," says Mr. Mahdi, the Iraqi vice president. "But getting orders from Iran, that is not true."

Many Iraqis view ISCI as corrupt and ineffective. The party performed poorly in local elections early in the year, losing out even in its strongholds.

In August, authorities linked a brazen bank robbery to the security of one of the party's top officials. Just a few weeks later, its respected leader died, passing the baton to a son even some loyal party members suspect doesn't have the leadership skills needed to right the ship.

It also faces tough competition. Mr. Maliki, a Shia, has endured bitter criticism of his handling of recent attacks in Baghdad. Still, he has been able to paint himself as a leader willing to de-emphasize sectarian tensions, which plunged the country near civil war in 2006 and 2007.

In provincial elections in January, Mr. Maliki campaigned for candidates on a nonsectarian platform. ISCI fell back on what it saw as its religious and sectarian appeal. Candidates adorned campaign rallies with images of the Imam Ali, revered in Shiite Islam.

When the election results came in, ISCI didn't win control of any of the 14 provinces where elections were held, including the nine provinces of the Shiite south.

"We went over everything and looked very seriously at our mistakes," said lawmaker Hadi al-Ameri, a top ISCI official.

Mr. Mahdi and other ISCI officials said they felt the party was making headway with its makeover when on July 27, robbers broke into Rafidain bank in downtown Baghdad. The thieves killed eight guards and made off with $4.3 million. Iraqi police found some of the money at an ISCI-controlled newspaper, and implicated a member of the elite security detail of Mr. Mahdi and a former member, as the masterminds.

ISCI officials have denied complicity in the heist. Mr. Mahdi said he pointed the police to the recovered money. He promised to cooperate with any investigation, he said. His account was corroborated by an aide to Mr. Maliki.

In September, a Baghdad court convicted four men of murder and armed robbery in the case. Four other suspects are missing, including the current and former guard for Mr. Mahdi.

Reeling from the fallout, ISCI leaders tried to persuade Mr. Maliki to rejoin a grand Shiite coalition that swept parliamentary polls in 2005. He declined.

In August, ISCI unveiled its slate of candidates for next year. Absent from the list was Ammar al-Hakim. He was at the bedside of his father, who was in a hospital in Iran, where he had taken a turn for the worse in his two-year fight with lung cancer. Two days later, the elder Hakim died.

When ISCI named the son the party's leader, critics said he was too young. But Mr. Mahdi, once seen as a contender for the top job, says the party needs new blood. "Ammar Hakim is the sign that the organization is regenerating and imbued with more youthful understanding and aspirations," Mr. Mahdi says.