BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A leading Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim party is campaigning against former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in this week's election, but some of its militiamen seem to be spoiling for a fight -- and not just at the ballot box.
Allawi is campaigning on a cross-sectarian ticket for Thursday's parliamentary election, picking up votes from the Sunni Arab minority and secular Shi'ites like himself with a vow to ban Islamist militias he says could drag Iraq into civil war.
Allawi, who hopes to lead a coalition government, accuses militias of trying to assassinate him. He also says they are behind abductions and torture uncovered by discoveries of secret police jails, the latest of which was publicised on Monday.
The government denies Allawi's charges, as does one of its main components, the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) party, whose armed Badr Organisation is a main focus of the accusations.
However, some Badr militiamen seem in aggressive mood. They say they are ready to fight Allawi and minority Sunni Arabs.
"Allawi is bad for Iraq. He is a dictator who will run it just like Saddam Hussein did," Imad Nathim told Reuters as three other armed men nodded in agreement as they guarded an approach to the Baghdad headquarters of their Badr Organisation.
For some Islamists, the former Baathist Allawi seems to fit the mould of Saddam, who oppressed the Shi'ite majority.
"If he wins we will definitely fight him."
Abu Ahad al-Naqib, a spokesman for the movement founded in Iranian exile as the Badr Brigade to fight Saddam's army, denied it would pose an armed challenge to Allawi if he gets his job back after the election. He said no individual members had the right to speak about the Badr Organisation's policy.
"If Allawi makes mistakes we will take it up with him through democratic means," Naqib said.
Fighters from Badr and other groups riding on police trucks clutching AK-47 assault rifles are a common sight in Baghdad.
Standing with policemen at a checkpoint leading to their fortified headquarters, the Badr fighters accused Allawi and Saddam loyalists of trying to discredit SCIRI before the poll.
They cited last month's discovery by U.S. troops of 173 mainly Sunni Arab prisoners in an Interior Ministry bunker showing signs of malnourishment and in some cases torture.
More abuse was reported on Monday, when a statement from the prime minister's office said 13 of 625 detainees found during a prison inspection had been abused. "This abuse required medical care," it added, without specifying their injuries.
Nathim said torture was acceptable in some cases.
"If you knew that a prisoner you were holding had killed 30 people and burned down 50 houses what would you do? Offer him a cup of tea?," he asked, dressed in a black leather jacket with a pistol tucked into his trousers.
His colleague, who said he spent four years in Saddam's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, acknowledged torture exists today but insisted that it was not on the scale of the past.
"There is torture but it is not as bad. People are not hung from the ceiling. People don't have someone hold a pistol to their head and shoot an empty chamber pretending it was loaded," said the fighter who only gave his name as Abu Ahmed.
Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari promised an investigation of the Interior Ministry bunker scandal, but that has not eased sectarian tensions and fears of civil war.
For the three fighters, the incident was a trick to smear SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Jaafari's electoral ally.
"It is not true. A Shi'ite rival paid big money for someone to leak this false information to the Americans to get an edge before the elections," said Abu Haider.
"Yes," Nathim agreed. "Besides there is torture in every country, including the United States and Britain."
Keeping a close watch on every car that passed the Badr compound, where Hakim lives, Nathim took a call on his mobile telephone from a supporter of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters clashed with the Badr Organisation in August.
But they joked on the phone, suggesting that the rivalry had eased, at least for now.
"You know if eight police cars pass here it means they are really policmen. If three cars come, it could be trouble," said Nathim, referring to possible suicide bombers.
Just across town, motorists passed a row of election posters. One said: "Vote for the strong. Vote for the trustworthy. The Badr Organisation."
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