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Women gain attention in Iraqi elections

Candidates in some cities are protected by U.S. forces

Candidate Balsam Hashim al-Hilli is back in Iraq after 35 years in exile.
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Iraqi women risk their lives to campaign for office.

How Iraq's electoral commission is preparing for the vote.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

(CNN) -- As the Iraqi elections near, women are changing the face of politics.

On TV women are encouraged to not only vote, but participate. Election organizers have mandated that 25 percent of the candidates in next week's elections be women.

Balsam Hashim al-Hilli has returned to Baghdad after 35 years in exile to run in the country's first democratic elections.

"Even though I've lived for 35 years abroad, to be honest, even when I dreamed, I always dreamed of the house I was born in."

Balsam's campaign office walls are festooned with cheerful campaign posters, but she has to campaign by phone.

"Women don't walk out alone in the streets," she says. "They are afraid of being kidnapped, not ... for political reasons, but ... for ransom. That's a very big problem."

The violence and political terrorism in Iraq have had a profound impact. Neither candidates nor election workers can move around freely.

They operate almost like underground cells, especially women.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, several women in Iraq's various transitional governments have been assassinated. So have women engineers, university professors and schoolteachers. It has a chilling effect.

One candidate of the main Shiite party, the United Iraqi Alliance, who refused to reveal her name, said she's afraid but determined.

"It's my responsibility," she says, and the responsibility of everyone. I am a woman, and I should be involved in political life."

In Najaf, under the protection of 200 U.S. and Iraqi forces, candidates appealed for votes Tuesday. Six women from the main two political blocs met with reporters in the Shiite holy city 85 miles (136 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

Veiled and wearing the black abaya, the candidates stood at a podium in front of a wall on which a copy of the U.N. declaration of human rights was hanging.

"We are under occupation," said Anwar Uboud-Ali from the Loyalty to Najaf bloc. "We want this election to elect a government that beefs up the Iraqi security forces and tells the Americans thank you for what have done and now leave."

"I am running as a candidate to defend the poor and raise the plight of the dispossessed," Uboud-Ali says. "I am talking about a class that has nothing."

Candidate Faliha Kathem Hassan said the Baathist government executed three members of her family.

"I want to help balance the repression of Saddam by running for office," she said.

The candidates, most of whom are in their 30s, said they were campaigning by word of mouth, holding seminars and visiting voters in Najaf.

"My family is worried about my safety, but Najaf is safe and I move by taxi daily," said Nawal Abdel Rida, who said two of her brothers had been executed, one for deserting the army and the other for taking part in a 1991 Shiite uprising.

"Ali Hasan al-Majeed killed my brother," said Rida, referring to a man who was instrumental in crushing the uprising -- a cousin of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour contributed to this report.

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