Iraqi leaders wind up election campaign

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi politicians made their final appeals to voters on Friday before a parliamentary election that al Qaeda-linked militants threatened to derail through violence.


Few expect a clear winner to emerge from Sunday's vote, which will shape Iraq's turbulent politics as U.S. forces who toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 with their allies prepare to depart.

In leaflets distributed in volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda-led umbrella group, warned Iraqis they risked death if they voted.

Suicide bombers killed at least 33 people in Baquba, Diyala's provincial capital, on Wednesday. Attacks in Baghdad, mostly aimed at soldiers and police who were voting early, killed at least 12 people and wounded 35 on Thursday.

Militants staged no major attacks on Friday. Security forces will ban vehicle movement from 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday until dawn on Monday to try to prevent election day bombings.

The Islamic State declared an election curfew of its own in a new message on a jihadist website and warned Sunnis that the polls would only serve to further empower majority Shi'ites.

"Anyone who goes out to participate on this day ... will unfortunately expose himself to the anger of Allah and then to all kinds of weapons of the mujahideen," the message attributed to the group said, according to SITE Intelligence Group.

On the last day of legal campaigning, Ammar al-Hakim, leader of a powerful Shi'ite Islamist party, told Iraqis at a rally it was their religious duty to vote, citing appeals issued by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric.

"Look for the lists that have a history and roots and that stood by the Iraqis in good times and bad," Hakim declared.


Sistani has carefully avoided endorsing Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI) or any other faction, however, instead urging voters to pick the best individual candidates.

This contrasts with his position in the last election in 2005, when his call for Shi'ites to unite helped an alliance of ISCI and other Islamist factions to dominate the vote.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shi'ite Dawa Party was part of that alliance, now heads his own State of Law bloc and is wooing voters by claiming credit for overall security gains since Iraq emerged from the sectarian bloodbath of 2006-07.

"We kept Iraq's unity from being fractured and achieved a high level of security, which was the reason for the start of work, building ... and normalization of foreign relations," he told a news conference. "Iraq is no more an occupied state."

Nevertheless, Maliki said in an interview with CNN he would be willing for U.S. troops to extend their stay in Iraq if need be.

U.S. officials say only dire circumstances would force them to rethink plans to cut U.S. troop numbers to 50,000 by August 31 from about 96,000 now, ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011.

Ahmed Chalabi, a candidate with the ISCI-led Iraqi National Alliance, proposed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that U.S.-Iraqi ties should move from military and intelligence-led operations toward "a more open and balanced relationship."

Chalabi, who was on the CIA's payroll for years as a Saddam opponent, fell from Washington's favor after the invasion.

A secular Shi'ite now close to Iran, he threw election preparations into confusion in January when a panel he heads barred hundreds of candidates for their alleged past as members of Saddam's now-outlawed Baathist party.

A few dozen were reinstated after making appeals.

Some of the most prominent of those barred were Sunni supporters of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite running on a nationalist, cross-sectarian program.

Allawi complained of pre-election "threats, intimidation and arrests" targeting his own bloc and others. Among what he said was a score of documented violations was the assassination of a candidate on his Iraqiya list in the northern city of Mosul.

He said it would be clear by Sunday evening whether the election had been conducted with integrity. "All the indications so far are that things are not going in the right direction."

(Additional reporting by Khalid Ansary and Rania El Gamal; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)