BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the months before the invasion of Iraq, the United States groomed exiled opposition groups as the nucleus of a future government to replace Saddam Hussein. Now with elections approaching, the parties still enjoy little support among ordinary Iraqis who view them as corrupt puppets of Washington.
Many of the parties are now scurrying to form alliances -- even with arch rivals -- in a bid to avert embarrassing defeat in the polls scheduled for January.
The two main Shiite political parties, which are hoping to benefit from the voting power of Iraq's Shiite majority, could face an even more difficult challenge if maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militiamen have been fighting coalition forces, decides to enter the race.
'A united stand'
"We're trying to form a coalition with other forces inside Iraq," said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the largest Shiite Muslim groups.
"A united stand achieves better victory," he said, denying that fear of defeat was behind the move.
"We don't mind sharing with other groups," agreed Adnan al-Kadhemi of the rival Shiite Dawa party, saying such tactics were only for the good of the Shiite electorate.
Both parties -- which are religious in ideology -- are courting al-Sadr, though they insist he must disband his militia. Al-Hakim and al-Kadhemi said their parties were trying to link up with "religious" parties.
Shiites make up some 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people but were marginalized and often brutalized under the regime of Saddam, who was a Sunni Muslim. The January election is likely to bring some Shiite political configuration into power.
SCIRI, Dawa and other former exile parties, however, are tainted in the eyes of many. Their leaders spent years in the West or in Iran, where governments used them as hopeful conduits to gain influence in postwar Iraq.
"They lived a comfortable life outside Iraq and have no understanding of our suffering," said Mona Hussein, a 29-year-old Shiite engineer who said she won't vote for the former exiled leaders.
"How can we have confidence in people who handed our country over to the occupation?" said a former teacher, Suad Hadi. "These people are only going to serve their own interests."
Al-Sadr is a major wild card in the election. Al-Sadr gained popularity among some Shiites -- particularly the poor and those angry at the U.S. domination of Iraq -- with his two violent uprisings in April and in August. That could make his followers strong contenders for parliament seats, though other Shiites shun what they see as the cleric's radicalism.
Al-Sadr has suggested he might bring his movement into politics -- but he has sent contradictory signals. Iraqi authorities have also insisted he disband his Mahdi Army militia before he can participate, a move he has so far refused. SCIRI and Dawa also have had militias, though SCIRI says its has been dissolved.
A senior al-Sadr aide, Ali Smeisem, said there would only be participation in the elections if they were "free, fair, under U.N. supervision and without the interference of the occupation forces."
He said no decision has yet been made on whether al-Sadr would "form an alliance with the mainstream political groups that are in the government."
Ahmed Chalabi, the former Pentagon-backed exile who heads the Iraqi National Congress, has also tried to court al-Sadr, as have other Shiite leaders.
"I doubt if any single party will dominate the elections," said Ghassan Atiyyah, of the Iraqi Federation for Development and Democracy, a non-governmental organization. "Dawa is fragmented. SCIRI is considered a government party."
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who once worked for the CIA and now heads the secular Iraqi National Accord, is likely to join forces with the two main Kurdish parties in the north.
And so might interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who recently married a Kurdish cabinet minister.
Dawa's al-Kadhemi expects the Shiite religious bloc to win 50 percent of the vote with Shiite liberals and independents getting 10 to 15 percent -- if elections can be held countrywide.
But what is most worrying, Atiyyah said, is that areas of the Sunni Triangle -- where opposition to U.S. forces and the Baghdad government is the staunchest -- might be left out of voting, either because Sunnis boycott or because violence makes balloting impossible.
If that happens, said Atiyyah, the 275-seat constituent assembly will be dominated by Shiites and parties of the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population.
"How can we have a parliament minus 25 percent of the population and then talk about a constitution?" asked Atiyyah, who believes elections must be delayed until the security situation improves and national reconciliation is achieved.
Some argue that the party list system to be used in the elections will favor the big parties at the expense of independents and smaller groupings. Under the system, voters choose a party list, and each party is allocated seats in the National Assembly in proportion to its overall share of the vote.
"If someone is very popular in his community and runs as an independent, it's not enough to be elected," said Atiyyah.
Coalition-forming may also prove problematic since Iraqi politicians are already prone to bicker over petty issues -- and this would be exacerbated when disparate groups tried to work together.
Whatever form they take or whenever they occur, many believe elections are vital.
"Election is the key to stability," said Atiyyah. "It's also an exit policy for the Americans. Everything depends on elections."