In a deserted, whitewashed school in the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, highly educated young men are risking their lives helping to organize the country's election. "We have been repressed a long time," said the group's 35-year-old leader, an Arabic poetry scholar, who was reluctant to give his name. "Our real weapon is to seek our rights through this election. So we have to participate."
Less than five months ago this vast urban slum in east Baghdad was in the grip of a militia that fought running battles with the much more heavily armed and better-trained U.S. forces. The young Iraqi fighters, born into poverty and with poor education, were loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He would regularly denounce the occupation and lambast the Iraqi exiles who dominate the U.S.-appointed government.
Twice last year he orchestrated big uprisings across southern Iraq against the U.S. and British military. But now he has turned to politics. His followers, the more violent end of Iraq's Shiite spectrum, are intent on voting in the Jan. 30 poll. They know that for the first time in centuries they will see a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Sadr is taking a cautious approach: He is not running for election nor has he proposed a boycott. Several of his aides are running in at least two separate political coalitions. The election officials at the school, which will be a polling center, say tens of thousands of people in Sadr City rushed to check and correct their voter registration forms before the deadline last month.
In other areas of the city, particularly violent Sunni districts where opposition to the occupation is strong, few voters made the effort. "It is a matter of freedom," the election official said. "If people want to vote it is up to them. This is democracy."
But the religious parties here are making a concerted effort. On the classroom's blackboard there are slogans, one reading: "Your voice is the future." Another says: "Yes, yes to Islam. Yes, yes to the Hawza, referring to Shiite clerical authorities in Najjaf. And representatives made house visits to check that all voters had registered.
The young official said he had twice received death threats on his mobile warning him to stop working. "The caller told me I would be killed. I told him, 'I feel bad for you. If you come here maybe I will kill you first.' He called again and told me to behave myself. He said, 'Your religion and your nation are the most important things.'"
In other parts of Iraq election staff have been murdered. In the restive province of Anbar, which includes the Sunni towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, staff resigned en masse. Dozens more in west Baghdad walked out. That mirrors the overall pattern expected on Election Day: Large numbers of voters are expected in the Shiite areas across the south and very few from the Sunni areas in Baghdad and central Iraq, where the insurgency has been strongest. It means Sadr City is one of the few places in Iraq where candidates can openly campaign in the streets.
At Friday prayers last week in Sadr City the imam at al-Mohsin Mosque read a speech from Sadr. "Your silence is as if you are accepting the occupation. Ask for your rights." Several of the thousands of worshipers held posters of Sadr. One held the Iraqi flag, on which had been added the words: "Long live al-Sadr. Muqtada is our bridge to paradise."
Some of Sadr's followers are represented in the main Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, which is led by former exiles and is likely to win the largest share of the vote. Others, led by the editor of a pro-Sadr newspaper, Fattah Sheikh, have formed their own party, the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres. As the Friday sermon was read, Sheikh, 38, in a smart brown suit and brogues, listened intently. When they cheered he took photos on his mobile.
"We Iraqis are going to get our rights in the election," he said later. We are going to give a voice to all these people. For more than 30 years we have been suffering and oppressed."