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Iraq's perilous, pricey campaign

Violence pushes Iraqi politicians to rely on technology instead of shoe leather for Thursday's vote.

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Gearing up for their first free parliamentary election since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are watching the battle for ballots in prime time, in an unprecedented campaign that features television among the essential tools to drum up support.

Fear of violence that has targeted both campaign foot soldiers and senior politicians has resulted in relatively little standard canvassing. There are few mass rallies or door-to-door visits, and only rare moments of shaking hands and kissing babies.

Instead, much of the battle for hearts and minds is taking place over the airwaves, where people can watch and listen safely from home.

But that makes campaigning costly - and many Iraqis say that as a result, only parties with outside financing can mount an effective public-relations campaign.

"We don't have the money to pay for these ads, and then we know of other parties that are able to pay $3 million to launch their campaigns," says Mithal al-Alusi, a secular politician who narrowly missed assassination last year after making a controversial visit to Israel, arguing for normalization. Two of his sons were killed instead.

"Yesterday they tried to kill another one of the people on our list," Mr. Alusi says. The members of his political party were shot at by gunmen who were driving in police cars.

So far, five Islamic militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have denounced the elections as a "satanic project," the Associated Press reported Monday, but none have made specific threats to derail the process.

However, security concerns have led Iraq to close its borders and extend a curfew. But despite the edginess among politicians and voters alike, thousands of Shiite supporters in Sadr City of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance gathered Monday in the largest campaign rally so far. It occurred under the tight security of Iraqi forces and followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

An election unregulated

Iraq's election season has turned into something of a free-for-all. There are no limits to how much airtime one can buy, nor on what can be said on air.

It's also permissible to give away free gifts. One of the most high-profile lists, the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella of 14 religious Shiite groups whose main parties now control the government, has been giving out business portfolios and calendars, along with other freebies that are aimed at bolstering their image as capable professionals, rather than fundamentalists.

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