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Iraq: Security Situation Worries Election Officials

Iraqi officials are taking steps to enhance security in the country ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 30 January. The top UN election official in Iraq says ongoing violence in the country is complicating the work of local election officials and could intimidate voters at the polls. Meanwhile, an audio recording has been posted to an Islamist website that purports to be the voice of Jordanian Al-Qaeda ally Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. The voice in the recording calls on Sunni Muslims to carry out violent attacks in a bid to derail the elections.

23 January 2005 -- The chief UN election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, said he hopes security arrangements being made ahead of the 30 January elections in Iraq will help to make the ballot a success. But Valenzuela admits that security could be better.

"[The conditions for elections] are not the best and certainly far from ideal," he said. "But if the security conditions work, there are very good chances the elections that take place will take place successfully and that the results will be accepted as credible and legitimate. And we hope that will be the case."

Valenzuela said ongoing terrorist attacks in Iraq are having an impact on the work of local elections officials and could scare voters from going to the polls on 30 January.

"The greatest fear is obviously that of the security conditions. The electoral commission needs to do a lot of work at the local level and people there are working under very difficult circumstances. So that's probably our biggest concern right now. And of course, the level of intimidation towards the voters that might have an impact on voters coming out," Valenzuela said.

Iraq's interim government has been attempting to enhance security in recent days. It has issued orders to seal the country's borders for three days ahead of the vote. Baghdad International Airport also will be closed to civilian traffic on the eve and day of the elections. The Iraqi government also has extended an existing curfew.

Both Iraqi and U.S. officials are refusing to comment on rumors circulating in Baghdad on the whereabouts of the man considered as the most wanted terrorist suspect in Iraq -- Jordanian-born Al-Qaeda ally Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.

At a news conference in Baghdad yesterday, interim Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib was asked by reporters about rumors that his forces had arrested al-Zarqawi. "I wouldn't like to comment for the time being," he replied. "Let us see. Maybe in a few days we'll make a comment about it."

Pressed further by one reporter about whether his remarks meant al-Zarqawi was, indeed, in the custody, the interim interior minister repeated flatly, "No comment."

Meanwhile, an audio recording allegedly made in Iraq by al-Zarqawi and posted on an Islamist website declares a "bitter war" against the elections. The speaker on the tape urges Sunni Muslims to fight against the ballot -- calling it a plot against them by the United States and Shi'a Muslims.

Correspondents in the region report that the voice on the recording sounds similar to previous recordings attributed to al-Zarqawi. U.S. officials have made no immediate comment about the authenticity of the recording.

Al-Zarqawi's group, the Al-Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi officials, and civilians -- including numerous kidnappings and the beheadings of several foreigners.

Sunni insurgents also have intensified their attacks ahead of the elections in a bid to disrupt the vote.

But the leading candidate in a Shi'a alliance that is expected to dominate the vote said yesterday that Shi'ites will not be dragged into a civil war despite a series of bloody attacks against them.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), said al-Zarqawi will not succeed in his efforts to divide Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis.

Al-Hakim survived an assassination last month -- a suicide-bomb attack on his party's headquarters that al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for. Al-Hakim became SCIRI leader after his brother Muhammad Baqir was killed by a suicide bomb outside Shi'a Islam's holiest shrine in the city of Al-Najaf in 2003. Al-Hakim says those attacks were attempts to spark civil war.

Even in countries where the threat of terrorism is lower than in Iraq, Iraqi voter registration has fallen far short of the level initially expected.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a group closely affiliated with the United Nations, is in charge of registering expatriate Iraqi voters in 14 countries. It announced today that it is extending the registration period by two days -- until 25 January.

IOM officials say a mere 10 percent of the expected voters signed up in the first six days of registration for expatriates. The IOM mainly blames fear and apathy for what it has called a "disappointing turnout" for registration.

(compiled from wire reports)

[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]

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