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Final drive to coax Sunnis to polls

The legitimacy of Iraqi election is likely to hinge on voter turnout by the Sunni minority.

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But in Sunni areas, only 20 percent of eligible voters said they are very likely to go to the polls on January 30, setting the stage for more sectarian and ethnic friction in a country that is already swamped by daily violence.

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Calculating from the "very likely" voters from the IRI poll, Sunni Arabs are projected to make up about 6.5 percent of the voters. The closer the actual number gets to 20 percent of voters, the more the new government can claim legitimacy.

"There's going to be a very low turnout in four [predominantly Sunni] provinces which will give a distorted picture of what Iraqis want,'' says Adnan al-Pachachi, a Sunni Arab politician and former Iraqi representative to the UN who is leading a party list in the elections. "It isn't a good beginning for a democratic experiment."

Turnout also looks to be low among Iraqi expatriates. About 1.2 million of Iraq's 15.5 million eligible voters live abroad, and the International Organization for Migration, which is coordinating the expatriate vote, says only about 21 percent of the eligible overseas voters have registered.

US and Iraqi officials here hope the television ad campaign will change the current low Sunni turnout projections, and have enlisted one of Iraq's most beloved actors, Khalil al-Rafaee, to star in several of the ads after focus groups showed his credibility is particularly high among Sunni Arabs.

Mr. Rafaee is largely unknown in the West, thanks to a historical twist of fate. On July 14, 1958, he received a telex from British director David Lean asking him to play Sharif Ali al-Quraysh in the epic 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia." But the next day, the British-installed Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in a bloody coup and the borders sealed. The role went to Egypt's Omar Sharif.

One TV spot opens with Rafaee walking with a friend by the river. His friend turns to him. "We need more time, Khalil, this is all happening too fast." Khalil nods understandingly, "Yes, we used to have more time,'' he says, "but did we have any choices then?"

The friendly back and forth carries on for a few more moments and then Khalil asks his skeptical friend, "Soon it will be election day. What will you do then?"

"I'll just come back and watch the river,'' he friend replies. "And you?" Khalil pauses. "God willing, I'll wake up and decide whether I'm ready to make a difference."

In another, Khalil sits with his grandson, who recounts explosions and the recent killings of election workers. Khalil tells him, "Yes, it's terrible. But we have to show people that they can't take this away from us." In yet another spot, voters are told that participating if they want the US occupation to end, they should get out and vote.

It's a soft-shoe approach US officials hope will make a difference, laying out options for viewers rather than preaching to them about the merits of democracy.But it's vying with an increasingly menacing insurgency, members of which have distributed leaflets in a number of towns in recent days warning that if people go to the polls, they'll be found and killed at their homes.

Farid Ayar, a spokesman for Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, says provisional election results may be available on Feb. 6 and that final results are expected to be available on Feb. 9.

Security rules at voting stations are inhibiting major organizations from doing exit polls. The rules require pollsters to stand about 700 yards away from polling places - outside the security cordons - making it too hazardous to carry out the polls.