Michael Kamber for The New York Times
By NADA BAKRI
Published: February 6, 2010
BAGHDAD — The campaign for Iraq’s parliamentary elections does not officially begin until next week. But for the crowd gathered beneath a tent sponsored by the Sadr movement in the southern neighborhood of Dora, it was well under way.
The tent was festooned with portraits of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, whose death in 680 was commemorated by millions of Shiites in recent weeks.
Outside, men dressed in mourning black stood under the shade of portraits of the movement’s leader, Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who now leads a powerful Shiite party, the Iraqi National Alliance. To the rhythm of religious chants thundering from countless loudspeakers, other men beat their chests in a move as theatrical as it was martial. Inside the tent, a sheik lectured a few dozen listeners about Imam Hussein’s life and his death, a seminal moment in Shiite history.
It was part religious ritual, part social gathering — and all politics.
“They are our leaders,” Rassoul Tohmeh, a 55-year-old man who was serving tea to fellow pilgrims, said of Mr. Sadr and his father, who was assassinated in 1999. “They are the children of the prophet. The Sadr movement is the most honorable party. Of course I’ll vote for them.”
The campaign was postponed last week in the wake of a court decision that overturned a ban on hundreds of candidates, leaving a cloud of confusion over who was running and who was not. Election officials are asking the Supreme Court to step in, and some lawmakers are talking about postponing the elections.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, following a meeting with political and judicial leaders on the crisis over disqualifications of candidates with ties to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, called for the court to resolve the appeals by the start of the campaign this week. The court had said that it would postpone its ruling until after the elections.
But neither the chaos nor the delay has stopped candidates from politicking, sometimes furtively and in many cases overtly, seeking to sway a crucial vote that will define the political landscape here for the next four years. The rules, which say the official four-week campaign is to begin Friday, cannot seem to contain the tumult of politics in the new Iraq, where religious symbolism fuses seamlessly with political messages, and campaigning is as colorful and unruly as the nation itself.
“Everything is about the elections now,” said Ahmad Muhammad, 25, an unemployed university graduate, who started the pilgrimage to Karbala on Wednesday from central Baghdad. “Soon, even the air that we breathe will be sponsored by some party or leader.”
The religious observance on Friday of Arbaeen, which in Arabic means the 40th day since Ashura, the day when Imam Hussein was killed, became an occasion for promoting political parties and candidates. To mourn his death, Shiite Muslim pilgrims from all over the country walk hundreds of miles to the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, to visit his burial site.
To ease their march, roads have been closed to traffic. And along these roads, thousands of tents have sprung up, like the one where Mr. Tohmeh was standing, plastered with the iconography of religion, politics and sometimes imagery in between.
“The revolution of Imam Hussein represents determination and change,” one poster said.
The tents are a place to serve the pilgrims food and offer a spot to rest or spend the night. But the services vary greatly, depending on political affiliations. The Sadr movement tent offered sweet tea, cakes, cookies, bananas, oranges, juice and harissa, a lamb and bean stew traditional for Ashura, all of it distributed without charge. Men standing in the middle of the street urged pilgrims to pay a visit. Those who chose not to were sent off with loads of goods anyway.
The movement’s party, the Iraqi National Alliance, was ready to spread its message, and unwilling to wait.
“The official period for campaigning is too short,” complained Mahmoud Dahabi, an official aligned with the party. “We started with preparations for our campaign two months ago.”
A few hosts tried to keep politics out of the holiday. A tent set up by Ahmad Mussawi, a government employee, offered pilgrims little but harissa.
“Almost all parties came offering help and money, but we refused,” he said. “They wanted us to promote them in return, but this occasion is not about politics. It’s a religious event.”
On the road, posters of candidates greet the pilgrims at every major intersection and at the entrance to virtually every town. “Peace upon you, loyal people,” said the posters depicting Ibrahim Jaafari, a former prime minister and a candidate for Parliament.
A poster for Mr. Maliki reminded people that his primary concern was for the families of those killed or persecuted by Mr. Hussein’s government, many of whom were Shiites.
Mr. Maliki’s images have spread overnight, many Iraqis say, in Baghdad and other cities, hanging from the tallest buildings and present in major squares and intersections.
Merchants report a boom in business at printing presses around the country.
Politicians have already flocked to major cities. In Basra, residents complained recently that they had to spend long hours stuck in traffic as politicians drove by in large convoys.
The speaker of Parliament, Ayad al-Samarrai, spoke for more than an hour recently to dozens of Sunni tribal sheiks beneath a tent at the headquarters of the Independent Tribal National Coalition in Baghdad. His remarks were effectively a stump speech, in which he criticized the government for failing to provide security and jobs, while praising Parliament for a series of laws enacted under his leadership.
Some politicians are campaigning among the dead, literally. In the two biggest Shiite cemeteries in the country — the Valley of Peace in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the New Valley in Karbala — young men on three-wheeled vehicles embossed with pictures of candidates and party slogans move between mourners, handing out sweets and pamphlets.
And then there is the free-wheeling campaign on the Internet, the latest addition to politics in a nation where satellite dishes were banned until 2003. On Facebook, fan pages compete for supporters.
A war of words has occasionally ensued. There is, for instance, a page for backers of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and a page for his detractors.
“Why do you hate Ayad Allawi?” a fan asked on the site.
“Because he is worse than Saddam Hussein,” a rival answered.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.