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As Iraqis register to vote, Shiites enthusiastic while fear grips Sunnis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As one of the thousands of food-ration agents who are entrusted with handing out voter registration forms in Iraq, Fadhil Muhsen Salom has a feel for the mood of his Shiite Muslim neighborhood, and he described it as enthusiastic.

"The people here are ready and counting the days to reach Jan. 30," he said, referring to the historic date when Iraqis will vote freely for the first time in five decades.

Across Baghdad, another food-ration agent, Salah Mahmood, nearly recoiled in fear when asked about the voter registration drive.

With a little coaxing, Mahmood acknowledged that he's been threatened and no longer hands out registration forms in his mainly Sunni Muslim neighborhood.

"Twenty days ago, I found a letter stuck on the door of my shop warning me to stop distributing the forms," Mahmood said. If he ignores the warning, Mahmood said, he knows what will happen: "I'm going to be killed with my family."

Block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood, Iraq's election process is unfolding in starkly different ways. In areas populated by Shiites, who are the majority in Iraq, the process is going relatively smoothly. In contrast, intimidation and fear are rampant in some areas where Sunnis reside.

The success of the registration drive—and the success of the parliamentary election itself—matters greatly. If enough Sunnis don't register, the Shiite population is certain to dominate the election, leaving the minority Sunnis without a voice or incentive to support the government. After such an election, Iraq might be rocked by charges of minority disenfranchisement, weakening hopes for quelling violence and reducing sectarian strife.

Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, have violently opposed the U.S. occupation and the interim government. Sunni cities such as Fallujah have been at the heart of the insurgency.

Shiites reside largely in southern and central Iraq, and are at least half the nation's population. Sunnis, who ruled Iraq for decades under Saddam Hussein, make up significantly less. Ethnically distinct Kurds, who are also Sunni, compose about a fifth of the population and live in the north of the country.

To reach the most eligible voters, electoral officials decided to conduct registration through the thousands of sites where residents pick up food rations. Often in a neighborhood home or small shop, Iraqi families pick up monthly allotments of a few pounds of rice, wheat, sugar, tea and cooking oil. The food-ration agents generally handle 150 to 300 families each.

In Sunni areas of Baghdad, some food-ration agents said they were terrified of the threats against them. Such threats appear to be common.

"I received 250 registration forms and distributed only 50 before I received a yellow envelope," said an agent in the Amiriyah district of western Baghdad who was afraid to give his name. When he opened it, "there was a warning that if I do not stop distributing these forms I will have no one to blame but myself."

When he asked employees at the Trade Ministry's food rationing department what to do, he said, he was told quietly to stop handing out the forms.

A spokesman for the nine-member Electoral Commission, Adel al Lami, said he was aware of "the threats to some of the food-ration agents and also the refusal of others to distribute the voter registrations."

Eligible Iraqis who don't register through food-ration agents can go to any of 128 election centers in Baghdad to register, al Lami said, adding that voting officials are working with police to provide security for the centers.

"The commission is not a military unit, but we're in close contact with the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense," he said.

The deadline to register is Dec. 15.

It's not only threats that keep some Sunnis from registering. Many are bitterly angry over U.S. and British military occupation and a fierce offensive that began Nov. 8 to clear out insurgents from Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad in a region known as the "Sunni triangle." In many parts of the triangle, Sunni leaders said fighting was too intense for them to organize effectively, let alone campaign, for the election.

"We have around 3,000 families in this neighborhood, and in my personal opinion only 10 percent will vote," said Mahmood Naser, a district council chairman in the largely Sunni Amiriyah neighborhood near the international airport.

A Fallujah resident displaced to Baghdad, 38-year-old Faysal Hamad, said voting in his home city was unlikely: "All the streets are stained with blood and still filled with dead bodies. ... It makes it impossible to have the elections."

In the bustling Karradah sector of central Baghdad, Khalid Waleed Khadum, a 45-year-old Shiite, arrived at a food-rationing center with his wife, sounding a positive note: "I'm very glad that I'll be able to vote. This is the best chance to express our freedom to select who we want in a democratic way and without pressure."

Salom, the food-ration agent who voiced enthusiasm for the registration drive, said residents in his northeast district, Sadr City, had pestered him to get their forms more rapidly, and that only five of 165 families had yet to register.

"I haven't heard about threats to other agents in this area. On the contrary, people here are helping us and helping each other to provide a suitable atmosphere for the elections," Salom said. "I'm encouraged by the elections because it is the only way to stabilize this country."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.