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Elections 101, Iraqi-style

Ahead of the Dec. 15 vote, the US takes its voter education drive to Iraq's Sunni Arabs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2005


Like proselytizers trying to sell a gospel of democracy to hidebound skeptics, two Iraqi election commissioners sit before a select crowd in the northern city of Mosul, and listen to complaints.

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They come swift and unrelenting, mostly from minority Sunni Arabs who have little faith in the process as Iraq prepares to vote in nationwide elections for a third time on Dec. 15.

Polling stations are too few and in the wrong places; people in remote areas have no way to get to ballot boxes; party monitors aren't issued the correct badges; and security fears in the volatile city are exaggerated, they say.

"There is a problem in the election commission itself - security is only a pretext not to open polling centers," complains one man, jabbing his finger accusingly at the commission. "I don't want to criticize you, but it is too much."

"The first [elections] experience was successful to some degree," says Adil al-Lami, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), in a bid to mollify the anger and uncertainty. "There were some mistakes, there were some negatives," he says. "But to be very idealistic is far away from our daily lives."

In a bid to boost participation by minority Sunnis, disenfranchised by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the most sympathetic to the insurgency, US officials are organizing a string of similar "outreach" meetings.

Here in Mosul they have much to overcome. Two Christians were shot to death Tuesday while putting up election posters. The entire Nineveh Province is ethnically mixed, but Sunni Arabs outnumber Kurds two-to-one.

In keeping with a Sunni boycott earlier this year, only 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots last January; 60 percent turned out for the October referendum. Now, many Sunnis say they recognize the need to take part, and they expect a far larger turnout Dec. 15.

"The whole point of this is to give the commissioners face-to-face time with their constituents, to hear the concerns and complaints of the people," says an American official with the group who said he could not be further identified. "It's specifically targeted at Sunni Arab areas."

But the one-day effort in Mosul shows the difficulty of even discussing democratic principles in Iraq, under the shadow of insurgency. Iraqi and US officials navigated an expensive, 17-hour tangle of logistics involving three aircraft flights, four helicopter rides, and back-and-forth in an armed convoy to gain just 45 minutes of discussion with local residents.

Most meetings last two hours or longer, and require only a couple airlifts, regular participants say. Commissioners are normally able to answer questions, without having to leave early and abruptly, as they did in Mosul; Americans from US Democratic and Republican Party democracy groups are meant to have time for voter education sessions.