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Campaigning in a war zone

By Aneesh Raman

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.



• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide



BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- I spent a good deal of time on the campaign trail in 2004 back in the US. From Manchester, New Hampshire, to Columbia, South Carolina, seeing the same speeches by the same candidates in differing cities. Politics is a passion and covering it a bit of an addiction.

So, despite finding myself in the midst of a war zone, spending a year reporting on the daily events of Iraq, I was obviously drawn to covering the various political milestones of the year, and most of all the current campaigns. This is a four-year government about to get voted into power, which means the political fight is incredibly intense.

My immediate impressions of the campaigns came from watching ads on Iraqi TV. Slick, glossy, harkening back to what you'd see in the United States, the leading candidates all can be seen appealing to the Iraqi voter. They all promise a better tomorrow in purposefully vague slogans that don't promise specific results.

Posters blanket the streets, with big pictures of the men who would be Prime Minister -- Ayad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi, Adel Abdul Mehdi -- with their various list numbers below. Here there are around 300 political entities registered for this election, the vast majority running as coalitions. Up for grabs are 275 seats -- similar to the House of Representatives in the United States -- filled with local representatives. It's a different system from January, one that guarantees each province a certain number of seats, and in turn guarantees each group -- the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds and the rest -- a certain number of representatives.

These are hugely consequential elections for Iraqis. They care less about the historical import and more about the length of time in office. The two previous governments have been inherently lame duck, in power for mere months. They often used that as an excuse as to why they couldn't fix the water problems or better the security situation. No such luck for the incoming government; they will have huge expectations weighing on their shoulders from an Iraqi population that wants improvements and results now.

To get a sense, though, of the political fight, I ventured out onto the campaign trail. There are remarkable similarities between here and the United States and very somber differences. My first stop was to a campaign rally for former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. You have to pass through numerous checkpoints and various screening procedures before you get to the garden area at his party headquarters.

It's a far cry from the meet and greets you'd find in the States. There, movement is key to a campaign -- working the crowd, sometimes jumping out of the motorcade to talk to voters. Here, because of the security situation, the voters come to the candidates.

At the event, I met Shereen al-Jaf, a 27 year old volunteer for the Allawi campaign. She works seemingly endless hours setting up events, plastering posters and handing out pamphlets because she's got that political idealism about her candidate. "I love him, he is the best thing for Iraq" she says of Allawi. And you know that she believes it. Because in Iraq, for a woman to be doing the high-profile work she's doing -- for a secular, liberal candidate -- it's not the safest thing to do.

"They are afraid, they say you are a woman and it's not good now. Maybe they kill me, after this," she says, referring to the fact that we are interviewing her on camera. It's inspirational to see not just democracy at its most basic, but democratic idealism in its purest form.

From that event I went to walk the streets of a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad with 25-year-old Jafar Ibrahim. He's volunteering for the current governing Shia list. He's a conservative guy who sees this, as many Shia here do, as the government that is best suited to fill the void of Saddam Hussein, a man who brutally ruled over the Shia for decades.

We go from shop to shop as he hands out posters, pens and candy, all for his 555 list. He tells me that this election is the most important of all that Iraq has seen this year because it is a four-year government. When I ask him if he could do the same campaigning in a Sunni neighborhood, he quickly tells me no. If he were to walk into a Sunni part of Baghdad with the Shia list posters, he could very well get shot, he says. And so I learn a lesson that in Iraq there are really no swing voters. You can only get out the base, only campaign in the friendly areas, only preach to the chorus.

So, in the end, as a political junkie, it is phenomenal to see how quickly and how effectively Iraqis have taken to the strategy of political campaigns. Every few moments the stark reminders surface that this may be a political fight to rival the best of them in the West, but it is taking place in a war zone. Here, politics is no game.

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