Iraqi insurgents lay down arms and get ready to vote

Militants call ceasefire as former rejectionists head for polls with renewed hope.

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BAGHDAD // For much of the past seven years, Omar al Naqishbandi has been fighting against the US military and the Iraqi governments that he saw as nothing more than Washington's puppets. In Sunday's election, however, for the first time, the insurgent will put down his rifle and pick up a ballot paper to cast a vote.

"Before, I didn't have any hope, but this year I do, and I will be voting," he said. "I think this time the nationalist movement will have a real voice and by the elections it will be able to liberate Iraq from the Americans and Iranians." A member of the Army of Naqishbandi in Diyala province, the militant agreed to an interview on condition that his real identity be concealed. The Army of Naqishbandi, a Sunni nationalist insurgent group, has grown over the past 18 months to be one of the most prominent movements still staging attacks on US forces in Iraq.

Army of Naqishbandi members insist they only target US soldiers, a claim the US military dismisses as the propaganda of a criminal organisation trying to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the general public. Regardless of the truth, for the election period Omar said he and his colleagues had called a two-week truce, so that voters could go to the polls without fear of violence. "We have put our weapons down for now. We will not stage any attacks that will harm the political process. We want people to vote, we want the people of Diyala to vote. We are sure they will vote for Ayad Allawi, he is a nationalist who will stop Iraq being a satellite state for Iran."

That such former rejecters of the entire political process in Iraq are now taking part in the election bodes well for those hoping the contest will be seen as legitimate. Although the election results could prove controversial - insurgents may return to violence if their preferred candidate does not win - the fact that militants are taking part in the ballot is a sign of some progress for Iraq's fledgling democracy.

Not all militants have taken the same view. Al Qa'eda in Iraq has vowed to stage attacks against election sites. Mr Allawi, the Naqishbandi fighter's professed favourite, heads the secular Iraqiyya list and, with a promise to put more political distance between Baghdad and Tehran if elected, there is anecdotal evidence he is collecting support among those who fought the current Shiite-dominated government.

That includes Baathist rejectionists, those blamed by the Iraqi authorities for some of the worst recent atrocities in Baghdad. According to Mouayid Abdulqadir, editor of al Saut, a pro-insurgency nationalist newspaper based in Damascus, Baathist militants will also vote. "The Baathists say they don't recognise the legitimacy of the political process or the election while there is still a US occupation, but in truth they are all going to vote this time," he said. "I've spoken to many of the Baathist leaders in central Iraq and they all say quietly they will be voting for Allawi."

Nazar al Samarai, a Baathist who worked in Saddam Hussein's presidential council before fleeing to the safety of Syria after the US-led invasion, shared that assessment. "As a Baathist figure, I can say that I consider Ayad Allawi the most acceptable candidate; let's say he is the best of a bad bunch," Mr Samarai said. "He has a vision for Iraq as an independent country and wants to put an end to this Iranian control. That makes him the choice for Sunnis and Baathists."

On the other side of the political divide, among Shiites backed by Iran, there are similar signs that militants are looking to the ballot box, at least for now, as a way of settling their grievances. "We no longer have our weapons. We are going to dominate Sadr City by the election; that is how we'll regain our power," said Abu Zeynab, a former commander of the Mahdi Army in its Baghdad stronghold, the sprawling slum now known as Sadr City. It was formerly Saddam City.

The Mahdi Army, the military wing of the Sadr movement, once fought pitched battles against US forces and Iraqi government troops, under the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and when Mr Allawi was in charge of the country between 2004 and 2005. Led by cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the Sadrists are a major component of the Iraqi National Alliance, a sectarian Shiite grouping that, like Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya list, is expected to perform well at the polls.

Abu Zeynab said he had been in hiding in Iran until a month ago, returning at his leader's request to take part in the ballot and ensure that his followers cast their votes. "We have not been harassed or arrested by the security forces since coming back," he said. "They have promised not to do anything against us before the elections, and we have promised not to fight until 2012. We are on the political path until then."

Another former Sadrist militant, Abu Zahrah, a commander from Kut in Wasit province, said a strong election platform would be used to end the US occupation. "We are voting because that is the best way to hold the US troops to account for their bad actions, and it is the best way to get them out of the country," he said. However, he stressed, a return to violence was on the cards - if his political goals were not met.

"I'm happy to take the political route for now and our orders are not to fight. But if the Americans do not leave Iraq by the end of 2011 as they have said they will, then there will be a new uprising. "Remember the first day of 2012. That is the date when these ceasefires end and the uprising begins again." Phil Sands reported from Damascus