Iraq vows tough punishment for campaign vandals

BAGHDAD: With tempers high ahead of Iraq's national elections next month, even tearing down a campaign poster is a flash point between Sunnis and Shiites.

A spate of defaced, torn down or otherwise trashed posters of candidates across the country has prompted the Shiite-led Iraqi government to vow to impose prison sentences of up to a year on vandals.

But others, particularly Sunnis, see the harsh punishment as just the latest display of power by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies. It comes on the heels of a ballot purge of more than 440 candidates, most of them Sunni, who are accused of being loyalists to Saddam Hussein's former Baathist regime.

"Democracy allows for any citizen to express his or her feelings," a 33-year-old man who would only identify himself by his nickname, Abu Harir, said Friday in Azamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. "It is unfair to impose this punishment."

Vandals burned some of al-Maliki's posters and threw black paint on those of former Premier Ayad Allawi in at least two Shiite-dominated Baghdad neighborhoods early Friday. Other posters were ripped. Both al-Maliki and Allawi are Shiite.

"One-year punishment is not harsh because of the corruption caused by this act," Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati, a member of al-Maliki's political coalition, said Friday. "They turn the legal competition to a violent one because when they rip the posters of one list, this list might react and by this they create violence in the street.

"In fact, one year is not enough as punishment," al-Bayati said. His posters were among those that were torn.

So far, at least eight people in Baghdad have been charged with defacing election posters since the campaign season began Feb. 12, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad's top military spokesman. Additionally, two policemen were caught tearing what Interior Ministry Undersecretary Lt. Gen. Aiden Khalid described as election publicity leaflets. They were transferred from Baghdad to an outpost in eastern Diyala province as punishment, Khalid told reporters this week.

With just over two weeks before the March 7 parliamentary elections, campaign posters representing Iraq's many and myriad political parties are plastered on buildings, blast walls and fences across the country. Overall, most have been left alone.

Yet many have been torn, ripped down or defaced with mud or other ooze slung across candidates' faces. Most of those vandalized belong to Shiite candidates — in large part because few Sunnis have put posters up. In one example, however, a poster for Sunni candidate Haidar al-Mullah was punctured with bullet holes near the Baghdad provincial council headquarters in the city's Salihaya area.

In many cases the vandalism appears to be between rival Shiite parties. In Amarah, 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, some of al-Maliki's posters have been torn or covered by pictures of Bahaa al-Aaraji. He is a candidate for the Iraqi National Alliance political coalition and a loyalist to Shiite anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Maliki posters also were torn in at least two Sadrist-dominated Shiite neighborhoods in the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

A spokesman for the Independent High Electoral Commission, Qassim al-Aboudi, said Friday that the prison penalties — of at least one month and up to a year — "are not new" but refused to answer questions about when, if ever, they were previously enforced. The 2009 election law makes it illegal to assault campaign propaganda, but penalties are not spelled out.

It's illegal to destroy campaign posters in most parts of the United States, but such laws are rarely enforced and only bring light penalties.

Mustafa Alani, a political expert with the Gulf Research Center in the United Arab Emirates, said the crackdown on vandals appears to have been spurred by the damage to al-Maliki's banners. "Although it is a general order that protects everybody, he believes that he is a target of this," Alani said.

Al-Bayati, the al-Maliki ally, scoffed at that.

"They rip the posters of all lists, not only ours," said al-Bayati, who is running on the State of Law coalition that al-Maliki leads. "Our posters are very few, and we do not need more because what the State of Law coalition has achieved is enough to speak for us."

Selling tea after Friday prayers across from the Abu Hanifa mosque in Azamiyah, Ahmed Ayad, a Sunni, said the threatened jail time seems like the government's way of protecting al-Maliki's posters. But he also thinks the ripped posters are a ploy by Iranian sympathizers to ignite tension between Sunni and Shiites.

And in the leafy middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, 40-year-old Raad Majeed Khorsheed said he thinks the vandalism is just another sign of political bickering that has all but brought progress in the capital to a standstill.

"It is the deed of rival political parties who are competing for seats," Khorsheed shrugged.