Friday, January 30, 2009

Killing of Iraqi candidates highlights dangers

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) - The former Iraqi army officer decided to run in provincial elections to improve Mosul, his violent hometown. Instead, the Sunni father of four was gunned down days before the vote, the latest example of the dangers facing candidates campaigning openly for the first time since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Hazim Salim al-Zaidi, 51, was among three Sunni candidates killed two days ahead of Saturday's elections. U.S. officials hope the balloting will give the Sunnis a fairer share of power and thus undermine the appeal of the insurgency.

More than 14,000 candidates are running for 400 seats on provincial councils nationwide.

With a new law allowing Iraqis to vote for individual candidates rather than political parties, hopefuls have blanketed towns and cities with posters featuring their pictures and snappy slogans.

Such a vigorous effort to draw attention to themselves would have been unheard of in the last vote in 2005.

It also raised concern early in the campaign that some candidates in high-risk areas would be vulnerable to attack.

Despite those fears, election officials said only four certified candidates had been killed in the run-up to the election - al-Zaidi, the two others Thursday and a fourth - a Shiite - south of Baghdad on Jan. 16.

Al-Zaidi, a first-time candidate with the secular National Unity List, was shot as he walked without bodyguards near his home in western Mosul, group spokesman Ali Abdul-Kadir said.

Two gunmen approached him, opened fire, then fled in an awaiting car.

"He joined our list to serve Mosul and then Iraq," the spokesman said. "He was saying that current local officials didn't do anything for the city, and he was excited to make big changes in the city."

Residents of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, complain that the previous council, dominated by the Kurds, failed to provide basic services and improve life.

Al-Zaidi, who earned money from renting two buildings, wasn't waging a flashy campaign. He focused on his own neighborhood and avoided rallies in the city. But he did agree to appear on TV for his party. Earlier this week, he traveled to Baghdad to film a commercial.

Party officials and family members had to rush to bury al-Zaidi on Thursday to avoid a curfew that was imposed in Mosul on Friday to prevent further violence.

One of the other Sunnis was killed Thursday in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad. The other was abducted along with his brother and cousin in the Diyala province town of Mandali near the Iranian border. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found later in the day.

The senior U.N. envoy in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, called the killings "a terrible crime designed to attempt to disrupt the democratic process on the eve of the elections."

"The Iraqi people have overwhelmingly shown their determination for conducting this election fairly and freely, undeterred by isolated intimidating tactics," he said in a statement.

Supporters of the new law allowing names of candidates on the ballot said the benefits were worth the risk.

Iraqi political analyst Sahab Awad said the loss of a few candidates was a small price to pay to give people a chance to avoid the mistakes of the last elections when "corrupt and inefficient people were put in power."

"Losing four or five candidates out of more than 14,000 candidates is a low number in a place like Iraq," Awad said.


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