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Iraq: Security Concerns Make For Unusual Voting Process

Iraq is due to hold an election on 30 January under highly unusual circumstances. Security will be tight and most cars will be banned from the streets. In some areas, voters will see the full lists of candidates they must choose from only when they actually enter the polling stations. And international election monitors will not be present.

Prague, 27 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to the 30 January poll, U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly urged voters to come to the polling stations.

U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday he is confident millions will respond to the chance to elect the country's new National Assembly. "Terrorists in that country have declared war against democracy itself and thereby declared war against the Iraqi people themselves. Yet, the elections will go forward," Bush said. "Millions of Iraqi voters will show their bravery, their love of country, and their desire to live in freedom."

But at the same time, insurgent groups have vowed to violently disrupt the voting. One group sent this warning via a videotape posted on the Internet this week: "We are the mujahedin of the Nineveh province, we pledge to God that we will be a sword in the service of the Islamic religion and what they call elections has no origin in Islamic religion and therefore, we will hit all the headquarters of the elections, God willing."

The threat of violence hanging over the election has made the procedures for the 30 January balloting extraordinary by any measure. The location of voting stations in high-risk areas will not be announced until the last minute. Similarly, in some areas political parties have not publicly posted all the names of their candidates out of fear that could expose them to assassination attempts. There, voters will see the full candidate lists for the first time only when they actually enter the polling stations.

The security threats have also prevented any deployment of international monitors to watch the voting and independently determine whether it is free and fair. Instead, monitoring will be done by representatives of Iraq's Independent Election Commission. International observers will later evaluate the legitimacy of the balloting based on interviews with them and UN officials who helped organize the election.
On election day most cars will be banned from the streets unless drivers have a special permit issued by the government.

The chief UN election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela, earlier this week acknowledged that the security precautions have made election conditions "far from ideal." But he said on 23 January that he believes the results will be "credible and legitimate."

"They're [the conditions for elections] not the best and certainly far from ideal. But if the security conditions work there are very good chances that 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.

To protect voters, Iraqi police and military forces will be deployed around the polling stations. U.S. and Iraqi officials have decided to keep U.S. and other foreign troops out of sight of the polling stations but close enough to reinforce the Iraqi security forces if needed.

The low profile for foreign troops comes as insurgents have repeatedly charged that the poll is illegitimate because the country is under military occupation.

At the same time, restrictions will be in place on travel into the country and on traffic around polling areas. Iraq is closing its borders for the three days before the election and Baghdad International Airport is to be closed over the election weekend.

On election day most cars will be banned from the streets unless drivers have a special permit issued by the government. That measure is to reduce the ability of insurgents to use one of their favorite weapons -- car bombs -- against voters.

It remains uncertain how many voters will turn out in Sunni-populated areas of central and north-central Iraq where anti-U.S. insurgents have been the most active.

Some Sunni community leaders have called for boycotting the poll due to security concerns or because they say it will hand power to Iraq's Shi'a majority. But other Sunni political leaders are participating and many candidate lists include Sunnis as well as members of Iraq's other religious or ethnic groups.

Iraqi expatriates are to vote from 28-30 January. The International Organization for Migration, which is organizing the expatriate vote, says that some 280,000 Iraqi exiles out of an estimated 1 million eligible voters in 14 countries have registered to cast absentee ballots.

In the election, voters are allowed to cast their ballot for only one of over 100 lists of candidates vying for seats in the new National Assembly. Most of the lists represent coalitions of political parties. When the votes are counted, each candidate list will receive a share of the assembly's 275 seats in proportion to the percentage of the national vote it receives. The National Assembly is to choose Iraq's next interim government and will oversee the writing of the country's first post-Saddam Hussein constitution.

One of the distinguishing features of the 30 January vote is the fact that one of every three names on the candidate lists is that of a woman. This reflects a requirement that no less than 25 percent of the National Assembly seats be filled by women. The result will be unprecedented legislative representation for women compared to other countries in the Middle East, where women usually play little role in political life.

Iraqi election officials have so far refused to predict when ballot counting after the election will be completed and the results known.

Farid Ayar, the spokesman of Iraq's Independent Election Commission, said yesterday only that results at individual polling stations will be announced immediately before they are forwarded to Baghdad for recounting. "Each [voting] station will count the ballot papers. Then, it will announce the result to the people who are present there, whether they are from media or political entities," he said. "These results will be sent to Baghdad to the main headquarters to recount it again."

He said, "There is no chance to have a real result" for the nationwide poll by the night of 30 January or "even the day after."

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

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