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Iraq: Many Officials Optimistic About Success Of Census

By Sami Alkhoja and Valentinas Mite

The Iraqi interim government is preparing for a census due to start on 12 October. The census is an important move ahead of next year's general elections. In January, Iraqis will elect a National Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. They will also elect local administrations for the country's 18 provinces, and in northern Iraq voters will cast ballots for Kurdistan's regional assembly. With so many elections in the near future, the census will be a crucial indicator of how many Iraqis will have the right to vote. But the population count presents a major challenge for the fledgling Iraqi government. Violence continues to rock many parts of the country; militias control a number of towns; security is poor virtually everywhere. Some observers are skeptical the census will succeed. But the government has expressed optimism the count will go off as planned.

Baghdad, 10 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some 10,000 data-collectors will begin traveling throughout Iraq in mid-October, as the country begins its first census in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

The United Nations has warned that the exercise -- the first since 1997 -- may be a failure. UN demographic experts say a government normally takes between three to five years to plan and conduct a census -- and usually under circumstances that are far more politically stable than Iraq's.
The most recent census took place in 1997 when Hussein's government announced Iraq's population was 20 million. That census did not cover the entire country -- three Kurdish provinces given independence from the central government after the Gulf War were excluded.

But others are more optimistic. Yahia Said is a researcher specializing in Iraq and other transition nations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He tells RFE/RL that although many parts of the country are not under government control, the task of conducting a census is still realistic: "It depends on how they organize it. The violence obviously is pervasive in Iraq. But actually a lot of bureaucracy, if you like -- the institutions of government -- are functioning throughout Iraq, including in some of the areas that seems to be outside of government control. Education, health care and so on, and the institutions needed for the census -- the Statistical Office and the Ministry of Planning -- could feasibly be able to conduct their work within the current circumstances."

Said says it may even be possible to conduct the census in places like Al-Fallujah, a Sunni hotbed of anti-American resistance that has seen increasing violence in recent days.

Said says "some parts" of the state administration are functioning in Al-Fallujah, and that local officials disregard Baghdad only on security issues. Most Iraqis, the researcher says, want to have a census as much as they want an elected government.

The two goals are closely related. Said notes a successful census will be essential for January's elections to be credible.

Some say even oppositionists -- like supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'a cleric whose Imam Al-Mahdi Army have fought long and bloody battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces -- will not prevent the census.

Assad Swari, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad's Al-Karkh District, tells RFE/RL that the Al-Mahdi Army has been ordered to stop all fighting -- something that should benefit people collecting census data: "Orders where given to the Mahdi Army, to stop fighting in all parts of Iraq for any reason other than self-defense. This step is very important to the committees who are conducting the population census."

However, the task is more difficult than simply registering all people living in Iraq. LSE's Said says Iraq's interim constitution grants voting rights to all Iraqi emigrants as well, so the census should extend to the sizeable population of Iraqis living abroad.

Voting rights are also being restored for those Iraqis who were stripped of their citizenship under Hussein and forced to live in Iran or Syria. These people must be counted as well.

Faris Danyail is in charge of media relations at the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Emigration. He tells RFE/RL the ministry is trying to establish offices in all of Iraq's embassies in order to get an accurate count of Iraqis living abroad: "There is estimated to be four million Iraqi emigrants outside the country, and it might be even more than that."

Said says the number of Iraqi emigres is a politically sensitive issue. Many exiles are likely to vote for those political parties that were formed outside Iraq and returned after the war. Those parties are widely distrusted by Iraqis who stayed in the country throughout the Hussein period and the U.S.-led war.

Mahdi al-Alak head's the Planning Ministry's central organization for statistics, information and technology. He tells RFE/RL it is unclear how many emigres have returned to Iraq, and how many Iraqis, conversely, have left the country as a result of the war. But he stresses all Iraqis living outside Iraq will be given the opportunity to vote: "We have a plan to register Iraqi emigrants outside the country. We are working with the Foreign Ministry through a high committee. It was established to register the Iraqi emigrants with the cooperation of the Ministry of Displacement and Emigration, and all Iraqi emigrants will be included in the census. There is another plan how to cope with the absence of [Iraqi] embassies in some countries. We will use the Internet and it will give every Iraqi an opportunity to fill in his application."

Al-Alak says the most recent census took place in 1997 when Hussein's government announced Iraq's population was 20 million. That census, however, did not cover the entire country -- three Kurdish provinces given independence from the central government after the Gulf War were excluded: "The latest population census was conducted in 1997; the census did not include three Kurdish provinces. Since the end of the [recent] war, many changes have taken place -- economic, social, and structural. For that reason it is necessary for the central organization [for statistics, information, and technology] to obtain new population data."

The ministry hopes to have final results of the population census next summer. Preliminary results should be available by the beginning of the next year -- in time for elections. While Al-Alak agrees it is an ambitious plan, he expresses confidence the job can be done: "For example, the results of the census of 1997 were finalized after four years. We have an ambitious plan to have the results in nine months. The data will concern general questions -- the size of the population, gender and names. This is easy, we can have it within two months of the end of census. This will help the election committee, if they want to benefit from it."