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Many Iraqis distrust legitimacy of Sunday's elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In between the Iraqis who adamantly oppose the upcoming elections and those who consider them the beginning of a new kind of country are skeptics such as Awas Hussein who fear the vote is rigged.

Hussein, 32, of Baghdad, plans to vote Jan. 30, but he believes either the Americans or the top political parties will ultimately decide among themselves who should win.

"I doubt that this will be the Iraqis' decision only. There will be interference from the U.S.," Hussein said. "I hope it will be legitimate elections. I really don't know, but I will try to do my part and vote and see what happens."

Hussein's doubts are part of a broader debate among Iraqis over whether their votes will count—and by how much.

Voters will cast ballots for competing slates of candidates, rather than for individuals, for a National Assembly. But the populace still doesn't know who the candidates are in each slate and how the process will work, which is fueling part of the debate. And in a nation whose government has been guided by the United States for the last two years, many find it hard to believe that U.S. officials will suddenly relinquish control. After all, America fought a war here because it didn't like the government in place. Will it stand aside now?

Mahmoud al Dulame, 43, is an ex-military officer from Fallujah who's out of work and, after U.S. troops attacked the city last year, out of a home. He doesn't plan to vote.

"America will definitely have a hand in this election. It didn't come all this way across the continents to offer Iraqis democracy," al Dulame said. "They will not let the Iraqis choose a government unless it is already favored by them. Therefore, I don't think it will be true elections."

U.S. officials have said little about the candidates, in part to quell that notion. They know they have a credibility problem among many Iraqis.

Recognizing that the credibility of the election is as important as its execution, the Independent Electoral Commission, an Iraqi body appointed to manage the elections, is trying to convince Iraqis that the process is legitimate. Its leaders often use the word transparent to describe the process, going so far as to have voters drop their ballots in 19,000 clear plastic ballot boxes.

Carlos Valenzuela, the U.N. representative on the commission, said a large segment of the population must consider the election credible for it to succeed—and that will be difficult.

The credibility of the process is already fragile "because of the security situation," Valenzuela said. Regardless, the elections must go forward. "A transitional election is never risk free."

Still, some Iraqis believe the ballot boxes will be stuffed with extra votes and that the commission will ignore the real results.

Who Iraqis believe will stuff the ballots, though, depends in part on whom they want to win. Many supporters of the main Shiite Muslim list, the United Iraqi Alliance, believe if their slate doesn't win, it's because the Americans wouldn't allow a government that could be driven by religion. Instead, they expect the Americans to stuff ballot boxes so that interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate, the Iraqi List, gets enough votes.

Supporters of Allawi charge that if their candidate doesn't garner the most votes, it's because the Shiite parties stole the election.

After the ballots are cast, election workers will begin counting at each polling center. Another 128 international monitors will oversee the process, the election commission has said. The tallies will be sent to Baghdad, where monitors will watch election workers count those tallies.

Some observers believe that fraud could happen during the count, with those in the polling centers striking deals over the tally. Or someone in the polling center could stuff the ballot boxes.

To counter that, Valenzuela said there are security measures on the ballots themselves and that voters will make indelible fingerprints on their ballots.

Hazim Abdel Hamid al Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, believes that fraud could happen within the election commission, noting that Iraqis know very little about it. He said nobody believes the United Nations could stop fraud, saying, "We don't rely on them to expose forgery."

Iraqis have little experience with democratic elections and many have a hard time believing the government would truly allow people to choose.

Here, and in other Middle East countries that hold elections, people are used to one candidate winning by an overwhelming majority, despite the will of the people.

"Iraqis have had a bad election experience. They will always have this fraud theory," said al Nuaimi.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein won all of his elections with 99 percent of the vote. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak won by more than 95 percent of the vote in his last election.

Nasir Hussain, a student at Baghdad University, said a microcosm of that type of election still exists. When he and his classmates voted for a student representative, the university rejected that vote and "made everyone elect the person they wanted."

"So that's my democracy experience," Hussain said. "I measure elections from this experience. I believe America and the people who came with it will choose, not us."

The electoral commission has set up a committee to investigate allegations of fraud. A candidate or political entity can file a complaint after the election and the commission will review it. If the candidate alleging wrongdoing doesn't support the committee's findings, he can appeal to a three-judge independent transitional Judiciary Board. That panel's findings are final.

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(Alawsy is an Iraqi special correspondent.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050125 Iraq glance and 20050124 USIRAQ election

Iraq

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