The images on al-Sharqiya, Iraq's most popular television channel, are slick and sophisticated; except for their language, they wouldn't be out of place in an American political campaign. Amid pictures of flags, ballots and Iraqi children, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi promises "a bright future and a strong and competent Iraq."
Among the freedoms Iraqis -- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike -- have embraced since Saddam Hussein's ouster is access to satellite television. Most Iraqis are news junkies, rapidly channel-surfing to catch the latest headlines. As I watched television with a Kurdish friend, Allawi ads ran repeatedly on Iraqi channels and on al-Arabiya, an Arabic satellite channel broadcast out of Dubai.
Allawi's political spots do not matter much in Najaf, where bloody urban warfare was waged just five months ago. The reason is not lack of interest but rather lack of electricity. Because of insurgent activity, the Iraqi government has been unable to supply fuel to the Musayyib power station, contributing to frequent power cuts. Ordinary Iraqis have to wait up to two days to purchase gasoline for their generators. They cannot afford to power their television sets.
Shiite politicians have accordingly taken different campaign tacks. Because insurgent violence limits the number of rallies possible, many broadcast their messages by radio, accessible to ordinary Iraqis with battery-powered sets. While Allawi is constrained by a wall of security, his Shiite competitors have adopted a grass-roots campaign. On Jan. 9, tribal sheiks from the outskirts of Najaf hosted a rally in the town of Mushkhab. Among those attending was Abdul Karim Muhammadawi, known as the "Robin Hood of the Marshes" for his resistance to Saddam Hussein's army before the American invasion. Former Governing Council members Ahmed Barak and Ahmed Chalabi also were there; Chalabi drove down from Baghdad for the event. Washington pundits who argue about whether the Sunnis will boycott the election missed an effusive greeting for Mudhar Shawkat and Sheik Fawaz Jarba, two Arab Sunnis who are running on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance list, which has been endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
I embedded myself with Iraqi friends in Baghdad's Mansour district, a diverse area that is home to many politicians but that has recently been the site of a number of bombings. After sunset, the generators go on and reception rooms are abuzz with local notables. In back rooms, politicians from across Iraq make deals and exchange gossip. They debate the efficacy of Gen. David H. Petraeus's training program for the new Iraqi military and how security might be improved. They discuss coalitions and post-election portfolios.
The latest rumors involve speculation that the Shiites might offer the presidency to the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani. Shiites and Sunnis discuss strategies to curb violence in Mosul. Some politicians disappear to consult with figures such as Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni tribal leader from Mosul who is heading his own slate of candidates. Campaign staffers discuss slogans, poster designs and news releases.
On the streets of Baghdad, the campaign is also in full swing. Iraqis ponder voting by the number. There are more than 250 election slates, representing approximately 7,000 candidates. A lottery assigned each slate a ballot position between 101 and 365. Driving to Kadhimiya, a largely Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, I see walls covered with posters for Slate 169, the Iraqi National Alliance. The posters alternately show a burning candle or the images of Sistani and the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Sadr superimposed over the number 169. Streets along Baghdad's now-decrepit Abu Nawas corniche are emblazoned with posters advertising the Constitutional Monarchy Movement's leader, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a Sunni businessman who has managed to attract significant tribal support. In a sign of tolerance and political maturity, competing campaigns do not obstruct one another's posters.
To Iraqis, the elections are no longer theoretical. With voting less than a week away, there is electricity in the air. Pundits and politicians can discuss whether the elections should go forward, but for most Iraqis, such debates are moot. Democracy may be a process, but it is one in which Iraqis are ready to take the first step.
The writer, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.