Allawi group slips cash to reporters

Allawi group slips cash to reporters

By Steve Negus in Baghdad
The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, on Monday handed out cash to journalists to ensure coverage of its press conferences in a throwback to Ba'athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30.

After a meeting held by Mr Allawi's campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most of whom were from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a "gift" of a $100 bill contained in an envelope.

Many of the journalists accepted the cash - about equivalent to half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi newspaper - and one jokingly recalled how Saddam Hussein's regime had also lavished perks on favoured reporters.

Giving gifts to journalists is common in many of the Middle East's authoritarian regimes, although reporters at the conference said the practice was not yet widespread in postwar Iraq.

The press conference came as Mr Allawi and his allies kicked the electoral campaign of their Iraqi List into high gear.

Mr Allawi was not at the conference, but Hussein al-Sadr, a Shia cleric running on the prime minister's list, used it to challenge Islamist opponents in the United Iraqi Alliance, saying they were falsely claiming the backing of the country's Shia clerical establishment.

In recent weeks, there have been signs that Mr Allawi's campaign is staging an unexpectedly strong challenge.

According to the preliminary results of one survey in Shia majority areas, Mr Allawi's list was favoured by 22 per cent of respondents compared with 27 per cent who chose the Alliance.

Mr Allawi's list, whose campaign emphasises the rebuilding of the Iraqi military, is playing on its leader's reputation as a strongman and Iraqi yearnings for stability.

Like most candidate groups, Mr Allawi's has not announced its complete list of candidates for security reasons.

However, officials in his party say that his prominent Shia allies include Mr Sadr and Basra governor Wael Abd al-Latif, while Sunnis include Falah al-Naquib, the interior minister, and Thamer al-Ghadhban, the minister for petroleum.

Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's outgoing president, on Monday ordered an early withdrawal of the country's 1,600 troops from Iraq over the next six months.

Mr Kuchma's move came in response to the deaths of eight Ukrainian soldiers in a blast in Iraq at the weekend.

Viktor Yushchenko, the president-elect, said he would make the troop withdrawal a priority when he took office in the coming days.

Additional reporting by Awadh al-Taee in Baghdad and by Tom Warner in Kiev

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