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Iraq's election office racing to clear hurdles, calm nation's worries

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At the offices of Iraq's election commission, workers scurry to field phone calls, greet sheiks and politicians, and prepare for the country's nationwide election Jan. 30. The pace borders on frenetic.

In the middle of war, as car bombs pound the city and gunfire punctuates the air, the workers race so that Iraq's 13.9 million eligible voters can cast ballots under all but the most violent scenarios.

For most nations, elections are the biggest logistical activity ever undertaken in peacetime. Iraq, which has no modern experience with elections, is preparing for one amid violence and turmoil. The election commission has begun to register voters, design ballots, train election observers and explain to citizens how voting works. Troubleshooting is an everyday activity.

"We know that there are going to be some mistakes. That's why we have some methods for correcting the mistakes," said Safwan Rashid, one of nine members of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

Questions about the viability of the election have given way to near-certainty that it will take place. Politicians who called for a boycott only recently appear to be re-evaluating. While the majority Shiite Muslims voice near-undiluted enthusiasm for the vote, minority Sunni Muslims and ethnically distinct Kurds have balked, worried that a popular vote may erode their power.

But resistance is wilting. A week after two Kurdish parties backed a call by Sunni politicians to postpone the vote, they were preparing a unified slate of candidates. Even Sunni politicians appear to be backtracking. Ayad al Ezzi said his Iraqi Islamic Party was talking with other factions "about the importance of having a good and proper atmosphere for the elections," while still declining to abandon its call for a postponement.

"A number of them are coming around to the view that perhaps they ought to seriously consider participating in order to protect their longer-term equity," U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said last week.

Iraq has allotted $250 million for the elections within the country, and another $92 million to allow an estimated 1 million Iraqis living abroad to vote.

In deciding to allow Iraqis living in many foreign countries to vote, the Electoral Commission defied the advice of U.N. advisers who said that would be too complicated. The commission says Iraqis in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Iran, Jordan, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are eligible to vote, as long as they can prove they are Iraqi citizens and were born before Dec. 31, 1986. Registration procedures for exiles are still being ironed out, said Farid Ayar, a commission spokesman.

In Iraq, registration of voters is under way. The registry is based on records of Iraqis who receive monthly food rations under a program that began in the early 1990s, when the nation was under U.N. sanctions. Today, rich and poor Iraqis alike still receive rations.

"Nobody could tell lies to Saddam. So it was a correct record. Whoever lied was killed," said Ayar.

Registration forms are delivered to citizens through food-ration agents linked to 542 distribution centers across the nation of 22 million to 27 million people. Registration ends Dec. 15. On that day, the campaigning officially kicks off.

Iraqi officials say some food-ration agents in Baghdad and Mosul, the country's third-largest city, have refused to pass out voter registration forms for fear of assassination. Rebels in Mosul destroyed the city's registration forms last month. But election officials say they'll find ways around the problem.

While security is a looming concern, Negroponte said registration was going normally in 15 of the provinces.

"Our operating assumption is that these elections will go forward and ... that security conditions will be sufficient and adequate for elections to be successfully conducted on the 30th of January," Negroponte said.

Security experts fret that anti-U.S. insurgents believe the window to disrupt the vote is closing, and may carry out high-profile attacks in coming weeks.

Despite the intense planning and abundant resources, security issues still threaten the elections in parts of Baghdad and in Fallujah and Mosul, if not elsewhere.

Election officials declined to say what measures will be taken to keep queues of voters off city streets, exposed to drive-by shootings or car bombs. Or, tougher yet, what will happen if violence in Sunni areas hinders voting and tribal leaders say they've been disenfranchised? Without dismissing such scenarios, officials said they expected that the buildup of U.S. troops to 150,000 by Election Day would help.

"We are expecting that the situation will improve," said Rashid, the commissioner. "There will be (voter) participation of at least 60 percent."

Ayar, who lived in Beirut in the 1980s, when chaos submerged the Lebanese capital, said he thought Iraqis wouldn't be deterred by widespread violence.

"The situation will be better. They will come. They will vote," he asserted.

He said that even a lower turnout wouldn't undercut the election's legitimacy.

Iraqis face several decisions on Election Day. They'll elect not only a 275-seat National Assembly but also assemblies for each of 18 provinces. Kurds in three northeastern provinces also will elect a Kurdistan National Assembly to rule over their semi-autonomous region.

Television ads began last week to inform people how to register and how to sort out problems if their names were listed incorrectly. A popular Iraqi comic actor who goes by the single name Hamada stars in the ads.

In one, he and his girlfriend rendezvous on a rooftop. She chastises him for their relationship troubles, while remembering he promised improvement after the election. The diminutive actor bemoans Iraq's woes but proclaims after the vote he'll be able to hold his head high. As high as that palm tree, he says, suddenly leaping into the tree.

U.N. and Iraqi officials noted that the watershed January vote is only one of a series of important elections that will make 2005 a very active political year in Iraq.

Once the new National Assembly takes power, probably in mid-February, its members will appoint a new president to run the government, then draft a permanent constitution by no later than Aug. 15. Voters are to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to that proposed charter by Oct. 15.

If the constitution is approved, Iraqis will go back to the polls by Dec. 15, 2005, to vote in a fully constitutional government, already well versed in casting ballots.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)


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