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U.N. Hands Task of Organizing Vote to Iraqi Panel

June 05, 2004|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The United Nations on Friday formally turned over management of the electoral system to an Iraqi panel that must organize a vote during violent times in a country with no tradition of free elections.

In a climate of fear -- both for personal safety and of foreign domination -- Iraqi control of the election process is essential, Carina Perelli, head of the U.N.'s electoral mission in Iraq, said at a Baghdad news conference.

But an even more important factor for the success of an election, Perelli said, is credibility. Without "establishing the bond of trust, it is unlikely there can be genuine, credible elections," she said.

Perelli said the commissioners were selected quietly in late May, while the naming of an interim president, prime minister and Cabinet dominated the news. The panel members must find a way to identify and register voters, set up polling places and establish rules for forming political parties and naming candidates in time for the first elections by January 2005.

Those tasks could be hampered by the ongoing violence, Perelli said. She said that compared to East Timor and Sierra Leone -- where she has worked on elections -- Iraq has some advantages: The country has educated people who can be trained as poll workers; the population is accustomed to dealing with the state; and there is infrastructure for polling places.

The commission consists of seven Iraqis and a nonvoting U.N. officer. Two of the members are women.

The commission members did not appear at the news conference announcing their appointments.

The Iraqis were chosen from 1,800 applicants, including lawyers, journalists, professors and human rights activists, Perelli said. Applicants were not allowed to identify their religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Voters will elect the 275-member national assembly from across the country, rather than from legislative districts.

Iraq will employ a European-style proportional representation system, which awards legislative seats according to the percentage of votes a political party receives. Perelli said Iraq's many religious, political and ethnic groups would benefit from the method. "It is extremely important that even the smallest groups have their voices heard," she said.

Determining voter rolls in Iraq, which has not had a census recently, is one of the key challenges for the commission. If direct voter registration is deemed unrealistic for reasons such as possible attacks on registration sites, the commission could choose to generate voter rolls through "secondary sources," Perelli said.

One possible way to identify voters is through the list of ration cards issued to Iraqis as part of the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" program. Perelli said "social validation" through public display of preliminary voter lists, which local residents would be allowed to challenge or verify, could be another tool for creating a roll.

Iraqis abroad will be eligible to vote, but must do so in Iraq, Perelli said.

Hamid Kifai, a spokesman for the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, praised some elements of the election framework, such as the use of proportional representation, but said he was troubled by the requirement that expatriates return to Iraq to be able to vote. Nearly 4 million Iraqis live abroad, he said, and many had had no choice but to leave.

"Had I stayed I would now be in a mass grave," said Kifai, who lived in Britain and the U.S. last year. It is unrealistic to require expatriates to return Iraq, he said. Iraq has only two commercial flights a day, and overland travel is extremely dangerous.

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