Electioneering begins as seven die in Karbala


IRAQ: Political parties began their first day of official campaigning for national elections next month, with Iraqi interim prime minister Mr Iyad Allawi declaring yesterday he would head a "national unity" alliance in the polls writes Jack Fairweather in Sulaimaniya

Meanwhile, in the Iraqi Shia holy city of Karbala, seven people were killed yesterday and 32 wounded when a powerful bomb exploded near a shrine.

On January 30th, voters will elect a 275-member assembly which will appoint a government and draft a constitution, despite a raging insurgency. Election officials say 80 blocs have registered to take part, including Sunni Muslim groups which had threatened to boycott the poll.

Beginning his campaign to remain in power, Mr Allawi pledged to move the country away from "religious and ethnic fanaticism". "We strongly reject the injustice and separation of the past and we are working towards national unity," he said.

He called the election "the precious dream stolen by tyrants".

The Iraqi government faces a stiff challenge to mount a credible election. Officials say their priority has been setting up the infrastructure for the vote, with 6,000 employed for the ballot.

US commanders warn that insurgent attacks will escalate ahead of the polls, which may keep many voters at home.

"We're in a race to stand up Iraqi security forces in time to safeguard the elections and give the people the confidence to come out and vote," said one senior American officer.

Another feature of the election is the creation of party "blocs", with joint lists of candidates along largely ethnic and religious lines. Iraq's main Shia parties - the Ad-Dawr Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq - have formed the United Iraqi Alliance.

The Shia - who make up 60 per cent of Iraq's population - were excluded from power under Saddam Hussein's regime.

The United Iraqi Alliance, with heavy backing from Iran, is expected to command an overall majority in the new assembly, and may force Mr Allawi's own secular-orientated bloc to the sidelines.

Iraq's two main Kurdish parties have also joined forces to contest the national ballot, and elections for a Kurdish national assembly.

The elections lists have one notable absentee in Moqtada al-Sadr. The Iraqi government conducted extensive negotiations with al-Sadr to persuade him to form a political party to contest the election, but the radical cleric refused.

Iraqi officials also announced yesterday that Ali Hassan "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, a leading members of Saddam's regime, could face trial on crimes against humanity as early as next week.

Defence Minister Hazim al-Shalaan told journalists that the trial would begin "next week, maybe, or in the middle of next month". There has been no indication when Saddam Hussein himself would face trial.

The timing of the trial's announcement has been criticised as a bid to give Mr Allawi's Iraqi National Party, a boost ahead of the polls.