The campaign to elect a new parliament has begun in Iraq, with the announcement of the major parties' electoral slates. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition faces stiff competition from an alliance of Shiite religious parties with backing from Iran.
Some Iraqis are starting to view the election as a referendum on how secular Iraq's next government will be.
Along the banks of the Tigris River, Baghdad's night life is back. On a recent night at one bar, a singer belts popular songs while a group of women dances — fully clothed, but it's still risque by local standards.
Clubs such as this one are thriving, and it's a safe bet that all of its customers will vote for Maliki, says the club's owner, Majid al-Numani.
He says the "State of Law" coalition, led by Maliki, has brought security and also separated government from religion, both of which are essential to running a nightclub that sells alcohol and features female entertainers.
The next morning, an entirely different demographic is out at the Buratha mosque in a hard-core Shiite neighborhood for the Friday sermon.
Jalaladeen al-Sagheer tells the flock that he will be starting sermons early from now until the election in January, because there is so much to talk about. He is considered a hard-liner in the Shiite religious coalition that is challenging Maliki's claim to Iraq's Shiite majority.
When he tells the congregation that some people in Iraq want to make a state without morality and without Islam, it's a clear dig at Maliki and his outreach to secular nationalist parties.
Courting The Nonaligned
But the political lines in Iraq defy simplification. The Shiite coalition includes plenty of moderates, but also the anti-American followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. And Maliki's own Dawa Party began as a militant Islamist group.
Last week, in a crowded reception hall inside Baghdad's Green Zone, Maliki announced the names on his electoral slate, including a smattering of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and secular politicians. A close adviser to the prime minister, Sadiq al-Rikabi, said afterward that Maliki will get the most votes because he has delivered results for Iraq.
"Mr. Maliki worked hard in this current year and he is working for the future to cross the sectarian border. Mr. Maliki said maybe one, two years ago, no return back to the sectarian block and to the sectarian tension, and he said and he did," Rikabi says.
Parliamentary calculus has become a national pastime. If either the Shiite coalition or Maliki's bloc wins, both would almost certainly need some help to form a government after January's elections. Rumors of secret meetings or schisms inside the Sunni or Kurdish blocs hit the newspapers daily, usually to be debunked hours later on the evening news. The Shiite coalition and Maliki are both courting the nonaligned parties, says Ibrahim Sumaydi, an independent politician.
"At the same time, Mr. Maliki knows that his sectarian rivals also have voters from the Shiite religious [groups] and the radicals in the streets and their bases. Both of these lists have to talk to two levels of people," he says.
In fact, the two sides may still come together and form a near-invincible alliance. So far, the Shiite coalition appears unwilling to accept Maliki's demand that he be prime minister for a second term if they do come together. But Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's deputy prime minister and a high-ranking member of the Shiite coalition, says the door is still open.
"The programs announced by both are not far from each other. They both look for nationalistic aspirations and programs, although they defend and they will count ... on their constituency," he says.
Factors from outside Iraq will certainly play a role in the eventual winning combination. Neighboring Iran hosted the negotiations that formed the Shiite list, and Tehran may still be pressuring to get Maliki to join a grand Shiite alliance. The Americans are hoping that Iran's influence might diminish through the rise of more secular and independent politicians.
Unfortunately, one more factor might play a major role: Violence often has swayed the outcome of Iraq's elections.