Faces focal in Iraq campaign ads

BAGHDAD — In the campaign posters that cover Baghdad's public surfaces like wallpaper, Iraqi candidates project an array of demeanors and identities that they hope will sway voters in next month's parliamentary elections.

Some grin; others scowl. They point accusingly at unseen enemies or extend open arms in a show of unity. Men appear in tailored suits to suggest cosmopolitanism, in tribal robes to appeal to more traditional Iraqis and in clerical turbans as a reminder to the devout. Thanks to a government quota, one in four candidates is female, and they reflect the broad spectrum of Iraqi womanhood, from lipstick and highlighted hair to bare faces framed by flowing black cloaks.

"If votes were counted according to the amount of time spent staring at the posters, she would definitely win," said Bilal Nouri, a supermarket worker in Fallujah who gazed longingly at a poster of an attractive female candidate.

Analyzing, judging and — especially — mocking all this posturing has become a national pastime as Iraqis prepare to vote on March 7. Not only a way to needle the political elite, it's much safer for ordinary Iraqis to make fun of the 6,000 or so candidates than it is for them to voice their opinions on the issues: securing the nation, religious vs. nationalist agendas, rampant corruption, the lack of basic services and a dismal economy.

"Everyone puts his photo up with a very nice motto, but they're already in the government, so why haven't they implemented these mottos? It's all lies," said Ali Falah, 27, who's unemployed.

As Iraq progresses on the rocky path that may or may not lead to real democracy, its political campaigns have become more sophisticated. The wealthiest candidates have hired expensive Western image consultants and public relations firms. Millions of dollars have gone into slick TV spots, glossy brochures, eye-catching posters and relentless text messaging, Facebook and e-mail campaigning.

There are more stringent rules this time around, too, such as bans on using sectarian slogans, depicting religious authorities who aren't on the ballot and putting campaign materials on mosques or government buildings. No glue or spray paint is allowed, and fines double if an offending poster isn't removed within three days, according to rules set forth by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.