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UN Calls On Iraqis To Vote In March Elections, Looks To Its Future Role

Ad Melkert, the UN's special envoy for Iraq
UNITED NATIONS -- The UN Security Council has urged all Iraqis to participate in parliamentary elections on March 7 and stressed the importance of a ballot that is "free, fair, transparent, legitimate, and inclusive."

At a session on February 16, the 15-member council heard from the UN's special envoy for Iraq, Ad Melkert, that some 19 million Iraqis are expected to participate in the poll, in addition to those voting absentee in 16 countries. Support from the UN's electoral team has played a key role in organizing the vote, he said.

Members discussed the need for a strong rule of law in Iraq and pledged to support the Iraqi government in its effort to build consensus and reconciliation among various political forces.

Noting that a strong election law is now in place, Melkert said Iraq is very much a constitutional democracy in action. And he said the UN is well positioned in the country to bridge differences. He called on all political parties to accept the results of the elections, which he said will be the "litmus test for the success or failure of the [democratic] process" in Iraq.

But Melkert said that while the Iraqi government looks favorably on the work of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), there is still friction between the UN authority and Baghdad. One sore point, he said, is the lack of transparency in the process that led to the controversial exclusion of 177 Shi'ite candidates from the March ballot.

Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Hamid al-Bayati
"With regards to elections, we have strongly advised on the process and advocated for transparency and consistency, making clear why candidates would be banned, as there is a legal basis for that which in itself is legitimate," Melkert said. "But the way that you deal with it should be as transparent as possible, and I have concerns about the lack of transparency in a number of cases and we have not hidden that opinion."

Decisions Being Appealed

Iraq's UN Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati told the council that the decision was related to court rulings for nonpolitical crimes or false documentation. He said a committee will review the files of all the candidates who were banned from running. Those candidates -- overwhelmingly Sunnis who were considered loyal to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath Party -- are appealing the decision, which has threatened to disrupt the elections.

Although the UN has worked with the Iraqi election commission, Melkert said, it has not participated in ballot qualification decisions.

"That process has already been nearly completed, as I understand, and that has led to the allowance of more or less 26 candidates [who] were taken off the list," he said, with the other appeals rejected.

UNAMI has also expressed deep concern about Iraq's human rights record, which has been taken up by the UN Human Rights Council. Baghdad has been criticized for instituting the death penalty, for tolerating so-called "honor killings," and for disregarding press freedoms.

Vital Role

But Bayati said that, despite the disagreements, the UN still plays a vital role in Iraq.

"Without the United Nations, Iraq wouldn't be able to have the constitution. In addition to helping with the constitution and elections and the political process," Bayati said, "the United Nations is helping Iraqis about disputed internal territories, and they're helping with the issue of Kirkuk. And then they are helping also with another important issue, which is Iraq relations with neighboring countries."

Melkert also told the council that preparations need to be made for the end of 2011, when U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave the country.

"We need to prepare for that, also in terms of our security support and logistics. That comes with [a] price tag; we will discuss that with the [UN General Assembly]," he said. "But first of all it needs to be based on the request of the Iraqi government as to what they expect the UN to do in the next few years, and there's no doubt that we will be discussing it over the months ahead."

Bayati also said the government is taking steps to ensure that citizens can vote without fear of threats from Al-Qaeda and supporters of Saddam Hussein's former regime. He told the council that "enemies of Iraq" killed 196 civilians last month.