BAGHDAD // Major religious parties in Iraq have been accused of putting pressure on widows in an effort to scare them into voting in the upcoming provincial elections. Several widows have said they were warned they would lose essential government payouts unless they supported ruling Shiite parties in the January ballot. One woman said she was told that if Sunni political blocs rose to power, Shiite widows would be stripped of their right to claim government benefits. In fact, providing assistance to women who have lost their husbands in the war is an issue of principle on which all parties, regardless of sect or ideology, largely agree. None has said they will stop the payouts. Um Ehab has five children and lives in the Karrada district of Baghdad. Her husband was a journalist working for the Al Zaman newspaper when he was killed in Adamiya by Sunni insurgents a year ago. Her neighbourhood is under the control of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), one of the main Shiite political groups in the ruling coalition, alongside the Islamic Dawa Party of Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister. ISCI did extremely well at the last provincial elections in 2005, not because it has a huge level of grassroots support but because it was well organised, well funded and managed to mobilise enough Shiite voters. In the coming elections, it is widely expected that ISCI will lose seats nationwide as a result of disenchantment with its performance at running local councils, and because it was essentially over-represented at the last ballot. But it is still a wealthy, well-managed organisation and is pushing hard to win as many votes as it can. "I was visited in my home by women who were working for the Supreme Council [ISCI]," said Um Ehab. "They came and told me it was important to vote for them if I wanted widows to keep getting money [from the government]. "They told me that if the Sunnis won they would make sure that Shiite widows were not given help, especially if their husbands were killed in Sunni areas." Adamiya, in central Baghdad, where Um Ehab's Shiite husband was murdered, is a Sunni neighbourhood. "They also said that if other Shiite parties like Dawa were elected, then widow payments would be reduced or even stopped," she said. Although there is no firm census data for Iraq, women are believed to outnumber a male population that has been devastated by the eight-year war with Iran and two subsequent wars with the United States. Widows make up a significant proportion of females, up to 40 per cent in areas such as Mahmudiya, the centre of what was once known as the "triangle of death". It means that women, and widows, make up an extremely valuable proportion of the electorate. "Everyone knows that widows are easy to frighten because we need the government benefits to live," Um Ehab said. "Widows are sometimes so desperate they have to turn to prostitution to live so it is easier to manipulate them with promises. "In my opinion the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party ? all the religious parties ? have been playing a dirty game. They recruit vulnerable women to serve their parties and they try to frighten us. "That is proof to me that they do not really care about our situation only about getting elected to power." In the Alif Dar area of east Baghdad, Raja Mohammed gave similar testimony, although her comments centred on the Dawa Party. Her husband, a Shiite, was killed in 2006 in the wave of sectarian violence that consumed the capital. Since then she has received a monthly handout of approximately US$150 (Dh552) from the Iraqi authorities under a widows support programme. It is not enough to live on but plays a vital role in allowing her to meet subsistence expenses. The 48-year-old mother of two said at the beginning of this month, a group of women campaigning for the Dawa Party came to her house. "They told me that Dawa were the only ones fighting for widows' rights in the parliament and that they were trying to get even more money to us if they win the election," she said. According to Mrs Mohammed, they also promised to give her children jobs if she voted for them. While such campaign claims are unsurprising, according to Mrs Mohammed's account, the women went further and also said that all other political parties were plotting to stop widow payments. "They said that our money would be lost with the wind if other parities win. I'm poor and cannot afford the risk of losing benefits so I've decided I must vote for the Dawa Party." Her friends, who are also widows, said they would be doing the same after receiving similar visits from Dawa campaigners. In Basra, 550km south of the Iraqi capital, Karema Zahdi said she would be voting for the Fadhilla - Islamic Virtue - Party, which currently runs the municipality. "I'm not confident in any of the Islamic parties," she said, "But women from the Fadhilla came to our area and told us that we must support them to get good money and better opportunities in life. That is the only reason I will support them. They promised me a job and they promised me a pay rise so I will vote for them." All of the parties involved deny any attempt to intimidate widows into supporting them. "I cannot imagine any party would do this or recruit women in such a way to gather votes," said Hussein Zubaidi, the director of the Dawa Party's Baghdad office. "These allegations are part of a propaganda war against the Islamic Dawa Party. We do not recruit women and send them to speak to widows, we do not differentiate between any Iraqis by sect and we work to help everyone no matter whom they vote for or if we even win. "We do not use such dirty tactics." email@example.com
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