A man crosses the street in downtown Kut in front of a wall full of campaign posters. More than 1,200 people are running for 28 seats on the Wasit Provincial Council.

A man crosses the street in downtown Kut in front of a wall full of campaign posters. More than 1,200 people are running for 28 seats on the Wasit Provincial Council. (Ashley Rowland/S&S)

KUT, Iraq — Campaign posters are plastered on every available spot in this dusty city — on gates, the sides of buildings, telephone poles, even on concrete blast walls. Most show men dressed in business suits, staring somberly ahead. A few show women wearing dead-pan expressions, their heads covered by the black headdresses worn by nearly all females in this conservative Shiite region.

The proliferation of posters — and the shockingly high number of candidates — show that residents of Wasit province are paying close attention to Saturday’s provincial elections, Iraqi and U.S. officials say.

A whopping 1,200 candidates are running for 28 seats on the provincial council. The governor will be selected from among the winners after the council is seated, probably in mid-March.

Officials estimate voter turnout at the province’s 260 polling stations could be as high as 70 percent.

"This is a new democracy, and it’s an expression of people’s desire for change," said Tim Timmons, leader of the Wasit Provincial Reconstruction Team and a former U.S.-appointed deputy governor of the province.

Wasit seems like an unlikely place for democracy, even one in its infancy, to be flourishing. This flat expanse of scrub and palm groves, which stretches south of Baghdad to the Iranian border, was once a stronghold for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.

Timmons said many citizens are unhappy with the current provincial council, elected in 2005, for not providing basic services such as clean water, sewage systems, trash pick-up and round-the-clock electricity.

Those services are most widely available in the capital of Kut, home to roughly half of Wasit’s 900,000 residents, but even that city gets electricity only about half of each day.

Saturday’s election is critical: If the next council can’t provide more basic services, people may conclude that democracy doesn’t work.

"I think the worst would be if you elected a government that doesn’t provide essential services and people are unhappy. If people are unhappy, then you have a less stable situation," Timmons said.

In the last election, citizens had to vote for a party, not knowing who would take office if that party won a seat. This time, they’re able to vote for individuals, Timmons said.

Many candidates are running as secularists and as independents. But some of those candidates back al-Sadr, even if they aren’t formally affiliated with him, according to an official with the Iraqi Advisory Task Force.

Al-Sadr and his followers view the election as a chance to quietly get their candidates elected and gain a foothold in the local government, the official said. But al-Sadr, who is believed to be living in Iran, isn’t expected to cause problems on election day, because he doesn’t want his movement to be associated with violence.

The Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — two Shiite parties with their roots in Iraqi exiles formerly living in Iran — are likely to be the biggest winners on Saturday, the official said. Those parties appeal to the poor and uneducated, and with almost half of its residents unemployed or living in poverty, Wasit is one of the poorest provinces in Iraq, he said.

Many people don’t believe a new government will improve basic conditions in Kut, he said. Some plan to make an "X" on their ballots and not vote for anyone, and some plan not to vote at all.

After a small uprising in March, Wasit province has been relatively peaceful, with no bomb attacks against U.S. troops since the summer of 2008.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials are bracing for insurgent violence on election day.

Dr. Abdullah Kadhum al-Shammari, Wasit director of the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, asked U.S. officials during a meeting this week to loan him 1,500 rolls of barbed wire to place around polling sites.

Kadhum said Iraqis cast votes during the last election without knowing what the candidates stood for. What was important to them, he said, was that they were voting for someone other than Saddam.

"The citizens elected anyone who is not Saddam Hussein, anyone to replace Saddam’s regime system," he said through an interpreter.

In this election, voters will be more discerning, he said: After four years in office, people have learned how their councilmembers will vote.

Col. Richard Francey, commander of Forward Operating Base Delta here, said he’s worried about candidate assassinations before the election and violence at polling sites on election day.

Francey said Iraqi forces have already requested help from the U.S. military, including intelligence support and air coverage at high-risk polling sites. They’ve also asked the U.S. to have their quick reaction forces and medical workers on standby throughout the province.

He’s also worried about assassinations when the results become final.

"Potentially some people that realize they’re out of a job — these groups could resist going quietly into the night," he said.

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