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Iraq: Vote Preparations Accelerate, Despite Uncertainties Over Security, Monitoring

Adnan Pachachi, an influential secular Sunni politician, has said his group may still decide not to campaign Iraq's Election Commission says some 6,400 candidates will compete in the 30 January vote for a National Assembly. But preparations for the election continue to be plagued by security problems and questions over how international bodies can monitor whether it is free and fair.

Prague, 17 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There is no shortage of candidates for Iraq's upcoming election.

According to the latest count, there will be some 23 people contesting each of the 275 seats in the new National Assembly. The assembly will have the power to choose a new interim government and appoint the body that will write Iraq's first post-Saddam constitution.

Those numbers could change slightly, as the Independent Electoral Commission is expected to publish full details of the list of candidates in the coming days. The deadline for candidate registration passed on 15 December, but with some leeway for final amendments.

The candidate registration process has seen Iraqi political parties and independents scrambling to form last-minute alliances to increase their chances at the polls. Much of the coalition-building appears intended to form blocs that can appeal to voters across Iraq. Each voter is allowed to mark his or her ballot for just one candidate list.

Adnan Pachachi, the leader of the Independent Democrats Movement, described his party list this way in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service in Baghdad.

"We all are Iraqis and, despite our religious, ethnic, or sectarian allegiance, we are one people. That's why our candidate list includes Shi'a, Sunni, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkomans, Sabeans [a religious minority in Iraq] -- all representatives are listed," Pachachi said.

Iraq's interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir sounded similar pan-Iraqi themes as he announced the creation of his own list -- the Iraqi Gathering -- yesterday.

"This list contains people from all different backgrounds of Iraqi society. Our main target for the near future is to solve the security problems," al-Yawir said.

Al-Yawir's announcement came one day after interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi fielded his own rival alliance, dubbed the Iraqi List.

Other major blocks competing in the January poll are the United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by pre-eminent Shi'a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and a unified list formed by the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties -- the KDP and PUK.

But even as a total of some 6,400 candidates now ready themselves to vie for seats in the new National Assembly, huge uncertainties continue to surround the election itself.

Among the most pressing questions are how parties can campaign in restive areas of Sunni central Iraq and whether polling stations can be sufficiently secured in those areas.

In one measure of the uncertainty, Pachachi's group has said it still may decide not to campaign if it determines that violence will intimidate voters in the Sunni west and north, where it is likely to draw most of its support.

Pachachi, an influential secular Sunni politician, registered his list for the January poll only after leading a failed petition drive last month to delay the vote on security grounds.

Some leaders in the minority Sunni community have called for a boycott of the poll, saying it will hand power to the majority Shi'a.
"We all are Iraqis and, despite our religious, ethnic, or sectarian allegiance, we are one people."

In the run-up to the poll, the United Nations has called for the election to be as inclusive as possible. But, given Iraq's security situation, it has limited its own role mostly to offering technical advice and training to Iraqi election workers.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in Washington yesterday that it is now up to the government in Baghdad to ensure that the 30 January poll represents all Iraqis.

"We are on track with technical preparation, and so what we had to do, we have done. Obviously, there are other aspects of the elections that the Iraqi government will have to take care of, particularly the context in which the elections are held, the security and political environment," Annan said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appeared with Annan in a joint press conference, praised the United Nations for doing a "good job."

"As you know, the Iraqis, themselves, are responsible for the conduct of the election, and the UN is certainly doing a good job in supporting them. The secretary-general has increased the number of UN personnel in the region," Powell said.

The United Nations currently has some 64 international staff in Baghdad, with about 25 of them being elections specialists. There are also 157 guards from Fiji protecting UN facilities.

UN officials say they have helped train some 6,000 elections workers and 130,000 poll workers in Iraq, mainly in projects outside of the country.

The United Nations has severely restricted the number of its international staff in Iraq since the August 2003 bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people.

Given Iraq's security problems and the limited willingness of world organizations to deploy staff there, it remains uncertain how the January poll can be internationally supervised to ensure fairness.

Powell recently called on the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help supervise the balloting, but the suggestion has not been taken up.

Analysts say there is little enthusiasm for the task in the pan-European grouping, which includes three long-standing critics of Washington's Iraq policy -- France, Germany, and Russia.

In a separate U.S.-supported effort to find ways to monitor the Iraqi poll, Canada is to host a meeting of chief electoral officials from 20 countries in the capital, Ottawa, on 20 and 21 December.

Canada's chief electoral officer, who will chair the meeting, told Reuters he does not expect there to be great interest in sending outside observers to Iraq.

The gathering is expected to discuss other monitoring options, including talking to Iraqi political parties and to Iraq's own election observers.

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