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BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis could be seeing election candidates kissing babies and canvassing neighbors when a new polling system comes into force in January.
Provincial polls slated for January 31 will allow voters to pick people, not just parties, potentially thrusting individual candidates into the spotlight.
A dramatic fall in violence in Iraq over the past year has made it safer for people to publicly declare their candidacy, marking a degree of maturity in a long-thwarted democracy.
In previous polls in 2005 -- the first since the fall of Hussein in 2003 -- people could only vote for parties, a system known as closed-list. Now Iraqis are ready to move on.
"We have experience now, we know who's who. We're going to vote for people, not parties," said trader Faris Kadhim in the oil-rich city of Basra, which until recently was torn apart by gangs and militias vying for control.
The January elections will be the first to be organized and run by Iraq -- not the United States or United Nations -- since the fall of Saddam, making them a milestone.
How Basra, Iraq's second largest city, fares in January will be a key indicator of Iraq's ability to steer the struggle for power away from bullets to the ballot box.
The nationwide elections are for seats in Iraq's powerful provincial councils, whose responsibilities include local investment, utilities, education, and infrastructure.
Some 2.5 million people live in Basra, which like no other city highlights the years of wasted opportunity and devastation wreaked by incompetence and violence.
The capital of Basra province in the south, it sits on a sea of oil -- historically, two-thirds of production came from the region -- and has the country's only ports.
It is blessed with rich palm groves and picturesque canals and waterways and is close to marshland thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, a contender for world heritage status.
Yet it is heaving with garbage and unemployment is rife. Waterways are clogged with waste, and the stench in even some genteel areas is overpowering. Most streets are potholed.
Until a government crackdown in late March, militias and gangs ruled the city, and even now some of Basra's elite go shopping with an escort of soldiers and armored cars.
People are reluctant to venture out at night, when Basra largely becomes the preserve of packs of stray dogs, their barks echoing in the darkness.
Basra's potential has contributed to its decay as rival groups in Iraq's Shi'ite south fought for control, scaring away foreign investment and expertise.
Allegations of oil-smuggling and corruption abound, and bickering among the incumbent local politicians has held up development. Desperately needed cash has been returned to the central government because of delays in spending it.
Basra's citizens have had enough, and some 25 interviewed by Reuters vowed to vote only for candidates they know and trust, not parties or coalitions.
Voters now relish being able to pick named candidates, a demand the United Nations -- which is advising on the polls -- said it had heard loud and clear from Iraq's people.
"The problem with the past election was the closed list. We need to pick someone we know," said shopper Fattah al-Moussawi.
"We want to vote for people ... A list might have one only good person in it," said another shopper Farhan al-Hajaj.
Violence is down sharply from 2005, mostly because of a surge in U.S. troops, a shift against al Qaeda by Sunni tribal leaders once allied with the Islamist group, and a ceasefire by militia leader and Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
With increased security, competition is set to be fierce. Some 1,286 candidates on about 80 lists are competing for just 35 seats on the provincial council.
The Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Dialogue political bloc said better security had allowed it open a base in mainly Shi'ite Basra. The two sects were once slaughtering each other.
More independents are competing. Three years ago, it would have been dangerous to stand as a candidate without the security a well-funded political party could provide.
"The security now is much better, and it is very encouraging for people who did not take part in politics before to do so now," said independent candidate and teacher Assad Attiya.
The ability to pick single candidates could force election hopefuls onto the streets to make themselves known, a Western-style of campaigning virtually unknown in Iraq.
Tribal sheikhs, local notables and pillars of the community could have a better chance of office without party affiliation.
"This is a big change in the politics of Iraq," said Ahmed al-Hilali, head of a group fielding 17 independent candidates.
More independents will make it easier to hold individual politicians to account, said group members who were planning election campaigns in each of their local districts.
Even if voters choose established parties over independents, the chance to pick single candidates could change party make-up.
None of Basra's ruling parties could outline their campaign plans when Reuters visited, but all were busily filtering their membership to find individual candidates acceptable to voters.
The Islamic Fadhila Party was subjecting would-be candidates to a legal and political examination.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa Islamic Party said it had spent "many long nights" screening candidates. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council had committees to sift through hundreds of applicants.
"A clean record is paramount; otherwise they don't run," said a leader of Dawa in Basra Shiltagh al-Myyah.
Fadhila dominates Basra's provincial council, considered by many in Basra as a failure. Its current leader, who will not run in January, declined to give an interview to Reuters.
"Many see us as aloof, having no constituents or base," his deputy Nusaif al-Ibadi said when asked about campaign goals.
"We want to show that we do."
Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed; Editing by Catherine Bosley and Sara Ledwith