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Iraq: Country Prepares For Parliamentary Elections On 30 January

Iraq has set 30 January as the date for the election of a transitional parliament that will select a new government and draft a permanent constitution. But among ordinary Iraqis, there are concerns about how continuing violence might affect the vote. There also is confusion over the voting process and who the candidates will be. But while some Iraqis want the election to be delayed, others are eager for the vote to go ahead. RFE/RL looks at how preparations for the Iraq vote are proceeding.

Prague, 22 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Across Iraq, voters and politicians are quietly taking the first steps toward elections, just 10 weeks away. Posters with detailed instructions about voter registration can be seen on the street corners and lamp posts of Baghdad. Widely circulated handbills and leaflets urge people to vote.

Voter registration began on 1 November and is scheduled to continue through 15 December. Election officials are using a food-rationing database from the era of Saddam Hussein's rule to create their initial voter list. When Iraqis receive their monthly ration, they get a sheet of paper listing members of their family and must report changes or errors on the list.

"Actually, people are asking for the registration form," said Abu Ammar, a food agent in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad who is helping to distribute voter registration forms. "They asked us, 'Have you brought them? When will you distribute them?' We brought them and we are arranging them and distributing them to families. We give the form to everyone who comes and those who have not come yet, we notify them to come. If they can't come, we will deliver the form to their homes. God willing, we will complete this process ahead of the election date."

In Shi'a Muslim neighborhoods of Baghdad photocopied statements from clerics who support the elections can be found posted in stores and coffee shops. Iraq's majority Shi'a community represents an estimated 60 percent of the countries population and many Shi'a hope to translate those numbers into political power through the ballot box.

Sheikh Ali al-Baghdadi said support for the election from the top Shi'a cleric -- Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- means many Shi'a will vote.

"As for elections, the religious authority talked about elections and the highest religious authority has issued a fatwa [religious edict] on elections," al-Baghdadi said. "The aim of the elections is to draft a permanent constitution for the country by an elected national assembly, which can help prevent the rise of a new dictator to power."

Iraqi Shi'a were long oppressed under Saddam Hussein and insist that the parliamentary ballot goes ahead on time. But matters are more complicated in some Sunni Muslim areas that have been marred by violence. Many Sunnis want the election to be delayed.

One influential Sunni group -- the Association of Muslim Scholars -- has called for a boycott to protest the recent U.S.-led attack on the Sunni city of Al-Fallujah. The head of the powerful association is Hareth al-Dhari.

"We call on honest clerics of our Iraqi people to boycott the forthcoming elections, which are planned to be held on the remains of the dead and the blood of the wounded of the people of Iraqi cities like Al-Fallujah and others and which are meant to achieve objectives of the occupying forces in Iraq," al-Dhari said.

Insurgents also have shown that they want to derail the vote. Gunmen recently stormed one food distribution center in the northern city of Mosul and destroyed the election registration sheets there.

Still, many ordinary Iraqis say they have no idea about the voting process, the candidates or even what they are supposed to be voting for. One recent survey found that many Iraqis still erroneously think they will be voting for presidential candidates.

Few Iraqis are aware they will be voting to elect a 275-member National Assembly and governing councils -- or that Iraqi Kurds will be voting to elect Kurdish parliament members.

Amnna Abd al-Jabbar is among those Iraqi who say they want to vote but have difficulty getting information about the process.

"It is necessary for every Iraqi to take part in elections because it is one of our rights to create a sound future," al-Jabbar said. "But we know little about elections because of lack of information. As a citizen and an educated person, I know nothing about the candidates and the elections procedures from the media."

The independent Electoral Commission has been trying to educate voters through a campaign of television advertisements. Plans call for the commission to produce a series of programs to be televised closer to the election date.

The commission also has published advertisements in newspapers, distributed 10 million educational pamphlets and provided literature to nongovernmental organizations to distribute in different provinces. But the precarious security situation is limiting the distribution of election information in many areas.

Abir al-Sahlani is a member of the Iraqi National Coalition party. She said providing security for the election will be a major challenge.

"My opinion about elections is that they should be postponed because neither the security situation nor the Iraqi voters is prepared for what is coming," al-Sahlani said. "I do not think that we have enough information. I do not think that the security is good so that people can go to the election places and vote. And there are a lot of threats right now against the Iraqi voters."

There are at least 150 political parties in Iraq that represent every niche of the population -- from communists to prisoners. Analysts say only 40 to 50 of those parties will meet registration requirements stipulating a minimum of 500 members is necessary.

(compiled with wire reports)