Problems mount for Iraqi vote

A UN memo details added concerns about registration and security before election Jan. 30.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Planning an election is difficult even under the best of circumstances. As one United Nations consultant remarked, it's "the largest logistical operation that a country undertakes outside warfare." To pull it off, many postconflict nations need at least a year.

Iraq is aiming for eight months.

But with election day less than five weeks away, the Iraqi effort to choose 18 provincial councils and a 275-member National Assembly that will appoint a central government and draft Iraq's constitution is facing serious logistical problems. The short time frame, coupled with the insurgency, is forcing Iraq's election commission to sacrifice both voter education and the safeguards necessary for a fair election. The logistical hurdles also raise questions about the legitimacy of the Jan. 30 vote.

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A new memo from the chief UN election official in Iraq, obtained by the Monitor, spells out an array of serious challenges:

• The number of new voter registrations is below expectations.

• Even though polling centers are likely to be attacked, Iraq's election commission is asking to use schools as voting sites, and trying to draft teachers and school administrators to work the polls on election day.

• A security assessment found that the warehouses for storing ballots in some provinces are not "fully defendable" in case of attack.

• The $55 million program for out-of-country voting by Iraqi expatriates has faced "significant delays." Fourteen countries are scrambling to allow eligible Iraqi exiles to vote in the Jan. 30 election.

One of the few bright spots is the number of people who are running for office. Preliminary figures showed close to 19,000 candidates, 6,239 of whom were competing for National Assembly seats.

But in Anbar province, where the violence-torn cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are located, there are only 43 candidates competing for a 41-seat provincial council.

"While there is no technical reason ... to cancel the election (as there are more candidates than seats)," said the memo, "the board is carefully studying the situation to determine whether that election should go ahead as planned."

On Monday, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Muslim political group, announced it was pulling out of the election, citing the same types of concerns outlined in the memo: difficult security and lack of public education about the vote.

Iraq's election commission has been hampered from the beginning by a violent insurgency. In July, one of the seven commission members resigned due to safety concerns. (The commission has seven Iraqi members and two nonvoting UN advisers.)

By September, the commissioners were still "begging" international agencies for funds to protect themselves and their families, according to an international consultant who asked not to be named.

"When the election commissioners are asking the UN to find a donor for your election commission's security, that's a big problem," said the consultant. "How does that allow you to focus on your work, if you have to worry about your family members being threatened?"

Poll workers targeted

Insurgents are targeting poll workers, too. Sundus al-Shemmeri, a young Iraqi journalist who quit her job to help prepare for the elections, was approached by an acquaintance with ties to the insurgency. "He said, 'Be warned: If you work with this organization, they will do to you what they did to Margaret Hassan [a charity worker who was killed by insurgents],'" said Ms. Shemmeri, laughing nervously.

These threats are serious: On Dec. 19, insurgents dragged three elections workers out of the their car on a busy Baghdad thoroughfare and shot them execution-style in the street.

The danger to election workers has made it difficult to find enough people to work the polls. According to the memo, the election commission is planning to ask Iraq's Ministry of Education for permission to use schools as polling centers, and teachers and administrators to staff them.

While that may solve the immediate staffing problem, it could make schools vulnerable to attack in a country where many parents are already afraid to send their children to school.

The number of polling centers will be lower than expected. The memo puts the number of polling centers at "no more than 6,000, with no more than 29,000 polling stations" - a significant reduction from earlier estimates of 9,000 polling centers and 40,000 or so polling stations.

Voter registration problems

That's partly because voter registration is below expectations. According to the memo, about 200,000 people made corrections and about 650,000 made new registrations. Divided into the total number of eligible voters - about 15 million - they come out to about 5.6 percent.

The numbers are approximate, and data from Anbar province is still missing. But the low numbers may mean that some people won't be able to vote if their food ration cards are inaccurate or outdated.

Because Iraq has no official census, voters were registered through ration cards from the UN oil-for-food program, which began in 1996. If the existing ration card information was correct, they didn't have to register or make a correction.

The low number could mean that ration cards were mostly correct. But it could also mean that Iraqis are counting on being able to use invalid ration cards.

"A big fear is that people in the Sunni triangle just won't register, and will count on current registration because they weren't able to confirm their registration during the confirmation period," said the consultant.

The electoral commission is debating whether to extend voter registration in Kirkuk, where leading Kurdish political parties have called for a boycott of the provincial election.

Despite the low numbers, the election commission decided not to extend registration countrywide, mainly for logistical reasons, noting that an extension would create a "tremendous new operational burden on the election administration - and just as the administration is attempting to prepare for polling day."

But the biggest problem for the elections, consultants say, is still the truncated time for voter and candidate education.

"All of them need education - civic education," said another international consultant working to prepare Iraqis for the poll. "They still don't know the rules."

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