Sunnis, Kurds, Shia Campaign in New Iraq Election

Ibrahim al-Jaafari believes in old-style campaign tactics—like paying off tribal blood debts. That's one way the former interim prime minister has wooed votes for his National Reform Trend Party's candidates in Iraq's Jan. 31 provincial elections. Back in October 2006, at the height of Iraq's sectarian slaughter, 14 Shiite laborers were killed by Sunni extremists at a fake checkpoint north of Baghdad on land belonging to the Jabouri, a Sunni tribe. The ensuing religious vendetta left more than 100 members of both sects dead before the killings stopped.

The trouble wasn't over even then. Under Iraqi tradition, the tribe had failed to protect the laborers who were in its territory and thus owed a blood debt to their families. The Jabouri blamed Al Qaeda for the original killings and wouldn't pay. But Jaafari settled things by putting up 15 million Iraqi dinars in compensation for each victim, roughly $180,000 total. "All the people in the area now respect him," says Sheik Behjat Abdul Majid, who heads a local council that handles tribal issues. "If he needs any support, then we will all support him."

The upcoming election—the first of four planned for this year in Iraq—has more than 14,000 candidates campaigning as hard as they can, with one foot in the country's future and the other planted deep in the past. Most have no hope of winning, since only 440 provincial council seats are at stake. But the outcome is of far more than local importance. For one thing, it could begin to correct the underrepresentation of Sunni Arabs, many of whom boycotted the 2005 elections.

The contest has turned Ira q into a vast political laboratory as candidates and party leaders try out strategies and tactics of every sort. It's a far cry from the almost binary electoral breakdown of four years ago, when much of the country organized itself on strictly sectarian lines. Political groups have proliferated wildly as Iraqis asked themselves how they could build a better country—and politicians began learning new ways of appealing to voters after more than 30 years of dictatorship.

Parts of Iraq look like something out of the New Hampshire primary—with less snow, of course. And in Iraq the candidates' posters are stuck to blast walls, while campaign workers lurk at security checkpoints to leaflet drivers who are stopped in traffic. Hayder Ahmed, media adviser of the independent Iraqi Election Information Network, observes that some parties are paying particular attention to the youth vote by seeking endorsements from popular athletes. Politicians are courting the media as well; there was even a "festival" in Baghdad for journalists married to other journalists. Each couple received a kerosene heater as a gift.

Party slogans are everywhere you look. Almost everyone is promising to bring "change," even the Islamic Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ("Change and Construction"). The head of Dawa's Baghdad office, Walid al-Hilli, hastens to say his party was using the idea long before Barack Obama. Although Maliki isn't running for provincial office, he's throwing the weight of his incumbency behind a slate of local candidates all across Iraq, claiming credit for the country's dramatic drop in violence.

Some politicians are copying more than slogans from America. "I watched President [-elect] Obama very closely in his race," says Ammar Mohammed Cheyad, 35, a candidate in Anbar province. "I liked very much how he talked of change and how he used media to get his message out." He may not be in Obama's league, but Cheyad and his supporters are using a similar playbook, canvassing door-to-door and telling householders that better government is coming. He also fields questions from the crowd at "conferences," as Iraqis call their version of U.S.-style town-hall meetings. "They wonder about [public] services," says Cheyad. "I explain that if I am elected I will work on the issues of reconstruction."

Still, there have also been echoes of Iraq's bad old days. Police in some areas have been accused of orchestrating raids in order to intimidate candidates. One contender has been assassinated in the insurgent stronghold of Mosul, and posters for some women candidates in Najaf have been covered with obscenities.

Even so, Iraq's campaigners are pushing forward. Although Jaafari's party is considered a long shot, its senior members intend to keep on cultivating popular support by solving tribal feuds. Jaafari figures that if Iraqis bury their old grudges, maybe they can finally move toward real democracy. In a country that's still learning what the word means, it's worth a try.