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Problems mount for Iraqi vote

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

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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.

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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 But the low numbers may mean that some people won't be able to vote if their food ration cards are inaccurate or outdated.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."