Saddam casts shadow over elections

BAGHDAD — He sits alone in a cell, writing poetry, reading and preparing for appearances before a court that could sentence him to hang.

But Saddam Hussein is very much a player in Thursday’s national elections, even if he is not a candidate.

His legacy has shaped the electoral debate as the country’s Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish and other communities struggle to find a formula to share power in the wake of his 24-year rule.

And his loud courtroom antics — played out on TV to the nation — have reminded Iraqis that like it or not, Saddam is still around.

The trial, now in recess until after the election, has enabled Saddam to present himself as “a caged lion” instead of “a mouse in a hole,” says Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Ghazi Al Yawer.

As a result, a trial that was designed to expunge the ghosts of his tyrannical rule has instead sharpened divisions among Iraq’s people at a time when the United States is struggling to promote national unity.

Shiite candidates warn that their followers must pull together lest Saddam or someone like him return to power.

They wonder publicly why it has taken nearly two years since his capture to put Saddam on trial.

Sunni candidates promise their constituents an end to purges of Saddam’s followers from government jobs. The violence that has plagued Iraq since the US-led invasion has softened the memory of Saddam’s crimes among many Sunnis, who now are terrified of domination by the majority Shiites.

How various groups view the Saddam years lies at the heart of Iraq’s division and the insurgency that has cost more than 1,500 American lives since US President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat in May 2003.

Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Kurds suffered most under Saddam’s Sunni Arab-dominated regime. Powerful factions within the Shiite political establishment remain adamantly against any accommodation with people they consider accomplices in the slaughter of Shiites. “We must educate all Iraqi citizens to be cautious about the return of Saddam to power,” Shiite cleric Abdul-Mahdi Al Karbalai told his followers ahead of the election. Those remarks were a thinly veiled message: Vote for Shiite religious candidates who will stand firm against Saddam’s loyalists.

The Sunnis, in contrast, want a guaranteed stake in the new Iraq, and thus have pushed to end the purging of former members of Saddam’s Baath Party from the government, military and public life. As public support for the war ebbs in the United States, American generals increasingly see victory as achievable only through a deal with Saddam’s followers. The United States thus has been encouraging Sunni Arabs to vote in the election in hopes they will send a strong Sunni bloc to the new legislature. That in turn could produce a government more likely to win the Sunnis’ trust and weaken the insurgency.

But key Shiite politicians have resisted any significant compromise on de-Baathification and have been quick to galvanise their voters by raising the specter of Saddam returning.

In Sadr City, Baghdad’s giant Shiite slum, posters merge Saddam’s face with that of Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister who is running for parliament. The message: A vote for Allawi is a vote for Saddam.

Allawi, a former Baath member, broke with Saddam and lived for years in Britain, where he tried to mount a coup against the Iraqi regime.

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