Iraq, with U.N. help, seeks to improve elections

BAGHDAD — United Nations and Iraqi officials on Sunday revealed a plan to make Iraq's January elections more transparent and fair in what are expected to be heated races for control of the nation's provincial governments.

The Jan. 31 elections will differ from Iraq's 2005 contests in one major respect. This time, candidates names will appear on the ballot instead of lists of political parties.

"That's what you are going to see — people," said UN Special Representative Steffan de Mistura, holding up a blue sample ballot. "You will put faces to the people and you will vote for them if you feel comfortable with them."

Iraq concealed the identities of candidates in the previous election as a safety measure. Security has improved significantly since then, though elections can still be a dangerous for candidates and election workers. Iraq's election office displays photos of its employees who have been killed over the past five years.

De Mistura and Faraj al Haydari, chairman of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission said security would be a priority, though they didn't describe specific measures to ensure safety.

In what may have been an election disruption effort, a rocket hit inside Baghdad's International Zone Saturday, killing two contractors and injuring 15 in the UN compound.

De Mistura said it wasn't clear whether the attacker aimed for the UN, though he said it wouldn't alter the UN's election-support program.

"We are expecting spectacular attempts to disrupt the stability of Iraq and the elections," he said. "These are attempts that are not going to disrupt the tendency in which Iraq is going."

He gave a glimpse of steps the UN is taking with the election commission to prevent fraud and bolster confidence in the January vote.

One measure will call on poll workers to post the names of all registered voters at each voting station. That's meant to prevent people from voting twice.

Iraq plans to have its teachers work at those stations instead of people associated with political parties, an effort coordinated with the country's Ministry of Education.

The UN and the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, have trained about 60,000 monitors for the Iraqi elections. They're aiming to recruit 200,000 observers.

Iraq budgeted $225 million for the provincial vote, of which $100 million has been received by the election commission, Haydari said.

He said about 2.9 million Iraqis registered. They represent about 13 million voters because heads of households can register for their family members. About 17 million Iraqis are eligible to vote, officials said.

The Independent High Election Commission is expected to organize a nationwide referendum in July on a security agreement that sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Elections for national officers are scheduled for December.

Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in Iraq's north, already is a flashpoint in the January elections. It's caught between Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that are vying to control it. Kurds argue that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein displaced them from the city as part of an "Arabization" campaign. Arabs now complain that the Kurds are doing the same to them.

The Kurdish government on Sunday criticized de Mistura for delaying a long-promised report on how Kirkuk and other disputed territories should be governed among different ethnic groups. It was due in December, but has not been completed.

(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)


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