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Walking a Tightrope -- Quickly -- Toward Iraqi Elections

September 25, 2004|Ashraf Khalil and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Iraqi and United Nations officials have little room for error as they confront the challenge of pulling together credible parliamentary elections in a violence-ravaged nation with no history of democracy.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has been on a U.S. tour, pledged Friday that elections would be held as scheduled in January. And speaking a day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that some trouble spots might be excluded from the vote, he rejected the idea of partial balloting.

"There will be no partial elections," Allawi told reporters at the United Nations. "Every eligible Iraqi will be able to vote."

State Department officials also tried to head off the idea that anyone would be marginalized. "We're going to have an election ... that has to be open to all citizens," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told a House committee. "We absolutely want to hold [elections] in all parts of Iraq."

Electoral officials want to reach out to all groups, especially minority Sunni Muslims. Sunnis already feel aggrieved because they lost their dominant status with the ouster of President Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni.

Rumsfeld's comments Thursday revived the question of whether hot spots such as the predominantly Sunni city of Fallouja would be left out. The city, which sits in Iraq's Sunni heartland west of Baghdad, is an insurgent stronghold that remains largely out of direct government control.

But officials must also take into account the desire of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority to hold elections as soon as possible. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation's preeminent Shiite cleric, has been adamant in demanding elections quickly, which would probably result in the full political empowerment of Iraq's long-repressed majority.

The election preparations are on "a very tight timeline," said Carlos Valenzuela, the top U.N. electoral official here. Violence preceding election day, now projected to be Jan. 31, "could be a showstopper," he said.

The prospect of violence has already begun to hinder election plans.

One of seven voting members of the U.N.-appointed independent electoral commission has resigned because of threats. Many others, ranging from top electoral officials to staffers at local polling places, might face intimidation or assassination attempts.

Officials with experience in holding elections say it will be difficult to organize the Iraqi vote. "This makes the Balkans look like Norway," one said. However, they still have hope, citing the example of elections in places such as East Timor, Cambodia and Algeria.

Valenzuela said that because of violence, the province he was responsible for in the 1993 Cambodian election had to reduce the number of polling places by 60% the day before the vote.

"And people still came to vote, and the results were accepted," he said.

Any suggestion of excluding certain groups or areas in Iraq could be harmful, Valenzuela said.

"It certainly doesn't help to have people making statements like 'We can have elections without Fallouja,' " said Valenzuela, who spoke before Rumsfeld made his comments. A senior U.S. commander in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, suggested in an interview this month that trouble spots such as Fallouja could be excluded.

There is little electoral buzz so far in Iraq, where security is the major preoccupation. U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched offensives around the country in recent weeks, seeking to establish control over rebellious areas.

But even without violence, the scope of the undertaking and the tight deadline leave almost no margin for error. Officials expect more than 20,000 polling places to accommodate as many as 14 million eligible voters.

"We really can't have any bad luck, and we need a little good luck along the way," said an electoral expert with experience in Iraq and other post-conflict situations. "Even the absence of bad luck is probably not sufficient."

Three elections are scheduled to be held simultaneously in January, making the job even more complicated.

Along with balloting for a 275-member national assembly, which is to write a constitution, Iraqis in each of the nation's 18 provinces are scheduled to vote for regional councils. In addition, the three Kurdish provinces in the north are to elect a Kurdish parliament.

U.N. election planners in Iraq, who number fewer than 10, hadn't anticipated that three elections would be held. The elections are spelled out in Iraq's interim constitution, which was crafted during the U.S.-led occupation.

"We almost fainted when we read that," Valenzuela said. "We were talking about one election, not three elections."

The U.S. government is quietly pumping $100 million into voter education efforts and other projects designed to move the process along, complementing an investment of $250 million by the Iraqis. All sides are trying to keep the relationship formally distant to avoid accusations of tampering.

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