BAGHDAD (AP) - Candidates in this month's provincial elections are answering questions from voters and debating issues ranging from Baghdad's housing shortage to the need to attract foreign investment.
This is the new style of campaigning in Iraq, where candidates feel safe enough to stump for votes and focus on grass-roots issues instead of the religious divisions and violence that overshadowed earlier elections held after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in 2003.
The shift was evident at a weekend forum that brought together 13 candidates in the Jan. 31 election for provincial councils, including a communist, Shiites, Sunnis and a journalist who formed a party named after an Iraqi television show called "Let's Talk."
As a waiter in traditional Arab clothing poured coffee at the gathering in a Baghdad country club, the moderator and people in the audience asked candidates how they would improve public services.
They got one minute for each answer. And nobody was fazed when the power went out briefly - a common occurrence in a country that still has severe electricity shortages.
Madiha al-Moussawi, a candidate from a secular party, promised to encourage foreign investment to help create jobs.
"Our goal is a better life for Baghdad and respect for women," said Ayad Younis of the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front.
A new election rule allows Iraqis to vote for individuals instead of only political parties for the first time since Saddam's ouster. That has encouraged a number of first-time candidates to join the race, hoping to persuade voters to turn against politicians widely criticized for misrule.
The field is crowded. There are 14,431 candidates vying for a total of 444 seats on councils in all but four of Iraq's 18 provinces. The electoral commission says 75 percent of the parties and coalitions are new.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are pinning their hopes on the first nationwide balloting in three years, looking for it to unify ethnic and sectarian groups. The goal is to bolster local governments - a key step in rebuilding the war-ravaged country.
Previous elections in 2005 saw little public campaigning because of rampant violence and sectarian rivalries that threatened Iraq with civil war. In those ballots, people chose parties, often with little idea who was running.
This time, hopefuls have been trumpeting their programs and handing out cards at campaign rallies and on walks through markets. One even organized a soccer game in which the players wore T-shirts with his picture on them.
Qassim Hilail Sabre, a 47-year-old aid worker with a charity that helps poor people and orphans, is among the first-timers.
"I decided to take part in the elections to improve the current situation, especially the public services," said Sabre, one of about 3,000 candidates for the 57-seat Baghdad provincial council.
"We believe that there is a dire need now to change Iraq's political map and its sectarian tendencies," Sabre added. "The people do not trust the current officials and even do not trust each other. Our goal is to play a role in changing all that."
Colorful posters and banners plaster overpasses, bridges and light poles as well as the miles of concrete blast barriers dissecting the Iraqi capital and other cities. With less than two weeks to voting day, workers were out putting up more posters this weekend on whatever space remained.
Candidates have come up with what they hope will be dazzling slogans that appeal to the hopes and fears of an electorate emerging from years of violence but fearful Iraq could slide back into chaos.
Others speak to people's religious beliefs or indirectly criticize outgoing local governments in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Billboards promoting parties carry messages that vary from "With us, your life is more valuable" by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party to "We're coming to bring change" by the small Constitutional Party.
The largest Shiite party is still invoking the name of the sect's most beloved saint. "Together on the path of Hussein," one banner says.
The use of religious symbols or sites such as mosques for campaigning has been banned in a bid to prevent enflaming sectarian tensions, but the rule is hard to enforce.
The law also forbids using money or intimidation to gain votes, but some tribal leaders are paying clansmen about $100 each if they swear an oath to vote for the leaders' picks. At a campaign rally in Baghdad last week, one woman passed out chocolate and gave elderly women money.
"Some officials have begun giving promises of a better life," said Saad Salman, 50, an Oil Ministry employee. "But we wonder why now? Why they did not say or do that before?"
Sabah al-Tememey, a 33-year-old mother of three who is running for the first time, said she entered the race in hopes of easing the suffering of Baghdad's people, despite fears she might be targeted by Islamic extremists because she doesn't wear a head scarf.
"My neighborhoods are full of widows, and my brother is unemployed," she said. "I can't fix everything, but it'll be a first step."
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.