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JANUARY ELECTIONS

Shi'ites put forth 228 candidates

BAGHDAD -- Under the guidance of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Shi'ite parties presented a list yesterday of 228 candidates for next month's elections. Minority Sunni Arabs, who had been favored under Saddam Hussein, must decide whether to join the race or renounce a vote that will help determine the country's future.

The announcement of the list of 23 parties, dubbed the United Iraqi Alliance, followed weeks of haggling. It includes two powerful Shi'ite parties, as well as an array of independent Sunni tribal figures, Shi'ite Kurdish groups, and members of smaller movements.

Importantly, the list did not include the movement of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who seemed to be waiting to see whether the vote will be considered legitimate before he joins the political process. With violence roiling the country and key Sunni leaders demanding that the Jan. 30 vote be put off, a credible election is by no means certain.

There were already signs that Sunni ranks were breaking: One group that had called for a delay, the Iraqi Islamic Party, quietly submitted a 275-candidate list yesterday. Party officials said they wanted to reserve the right to participate in the vote if the election is not postponed.

In clashes yesterday, seven Iraqis were killed in Baghdad and the volatile western city of Ramadi.

A car bomb also rocked a busy vegetable market in the northern city of Mosul, wounding two civilians, while a US soldier was wounded by a roadside bomb in the capital.

Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appointed the committee that set up the 228-candidate list. He has been working to unite Iraq's majority Shi'ites ahead of the vote to ensure victory, and to include representatives from Iraq's other diverse communities. Shi'ites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population.

The major Shi'ite political parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party -- were on the list. Both have strong links with Iran, a Shi'ite but non-Arab neighbor.

The 228 candidates also include independent Sunni Muslims, members of the Yazidis minority religious sect, and a Turkomen movement, among others. Also listed are members of the Iraqi National Congress, led by former exile and former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.

"I think that this list is a patriotic list. We hope that Iraqi people will back this list," said Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, head of the powerful Sunni Shemar tribes in Mosul.

Abiding by electoral law, at least a third of the candidates on the list are women.

The announcement puts the focus on the Sunni Arab minority, some of whom have said the country is far too unsafe to hold a vote. They must decide whether to risk boycotting the vote, which could leave them with little power if the election proceeds.

The announcement by the Iraqi Islamic Party to submit a list of candidates suggested that Sunni Arabs have begun to see the vote as inevitable. Senior party official Ayad al-Samarrai said the move was meant to prove that the party was serious about elections, but will need to evaluate the situation further before deciding whether to contest the vote.

"We're reserving our right" to participate in the elections, Samarrai said. "Toward the end, we will decide."

Sunni clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars urged Sunnis to boycott the election to protest the US-led assault last month on the then-insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The influential religious group called plans to hold the vote in January "madness."

"The association's stance toward the elections is firm and unchanged -- we will not take a part in these elections because . . . no elections can be held under the pressure of the Americans and the . . . deteriorating security situation," said Sheik Mohamed Bashar Al-Faidhi, an association spokesman.

The main Kurdish parties will contest the vote with their own unified list later, Kurdish leaders have said.

The election will be the first popular vote in Iraq in decades. Iraqis will choose a 275-member assembly that will write a permanent constitution. If adopted in a referendum next year, the constitution would form the legal basis for another general election to be held by Dec. 15, 2005.

Voting will be done by party list, and individual candidates also run. The number of seats coalitions win will be determined by the percentage of the vote they get.

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