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Militants' Campaign Twists Logistics of Iraq Election

Workers and candidates risk their lives and limit their visibility. Voting locations are still secret.

January 03, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The parties have registered, the alliances have formed and the calls for a delay have mostly died down. With the first frantic stage of Iraq's landmark electoral saga past, planners face the nuts and bolts of holding a credible vote in four weeks' time.

Until now, the campaign was almost a theoretical concept. Much of the work took place inside Baghdad's Green Zone fortress, and the far-flung local offices of the Independent Electoral Commission kept a low profile. Most of the estimated 14 million eligible voters were automatically registered without having to leave their homes.

Now, the campaign planning inevitably will become more visible -- and more of a target. Thousands of temporary employees are being recruited as quietly as possible. They will operate under constant threat of attack and somehow have to offer enough voting opportunities in the insurgency-racked Sunni Muslim heartland to produce a result acceptable to that vital minority.

Organizers must also oversee the transport of 7 million pounds of equipment, including ballot boxes, ballots, special ink and 142,000 collapsible polling booths. Where those stations will be situated on election day has not yet been revealed.

But the lack of security on many highways makes trucking the supplies too risky. Sunday, an SUV carrying two suicide bombers exploded alongside an Iraqi troop bus on a road near Balad, northwest of the capital, killing 20 soldiers. So organizers will resort to what one electoral expert called "one of the largest airlifts this region has seen since the first Gulf War."

It would be an intimidating prospect even if organizers had the full month before the election to get everything in place. But the planners are concerned that insurgents will simply target warehouses, as in November, when a building full of registration forms was torched in Mosul.

The solution? They're waiting to deliver the equipment in the final 10 days before Jan. 30.

"It all goes back to the security situation," said the electoral expert, who has experience in Iraq. "It manifests itself in a lot of different ways."

The international team assisting the electoral commission is a battle-tested group with experience in countries that read like a travelogue of conflict zones: Indonesia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Liberia and more.

But the expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said restrictions on their movement in Iraq were "not comparable with any other country." Traveling to supervise preparation is not an option, and some organizers are accompanied by armed guards even inside the Green Zone.

The possibility of assassination is something many electoral workers and candidates say they have largely accepted as a daily reality.

The most vulnerable group will be the 250,000 temporary employees being hired and trained for the vote. The effort is being handled so quietly that even some of the parties and candidates have heard only vague rumblings about it.

"We hear people are being hired," said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. "There is clearly some secrecy about people who are going to be employed because of the security concerns."

The silence has become a headache for some parties, who can't get answers to basic questions, such as the locations of polling stations and when results will be announced. Bin Hussein said he heard candidates complain that in the southern province of Basra, the local electoral commission office was nearly impossible to find.

"One can sympathize with their security concerns, but that doesn't make it easy for the 100-plus [candidate slates] that want to know exactly where is the map of the polling stations," he said. "We don't want to guess."

Still, organizers know they can't hope to keep employee identities or polling place locations secret for much longer. Once that information is publicized, it's only a matter of time before the insurgents strike. The stark reality is that some election workers and candidates will not survive to see the election.

The threat was brought into harsh focus last month when three employees of the commission's Baghdad office were ambushed and killed on Haifa Street, a notorious stretch of central Baghdad where insurgents hold sway.

The electoral expert said the killings themselves weren't as shocking as the brutal details. The employees were traveling with armed guards but were overwhelmed by a large force of gunmen, dragged out of their cars and executed in front of rush-hour drivers. The bodies lay on the street for hours, as residents refrained from even covering them for fear of being targeted. Still, he said, not a single member of the commission's Baghdad staff resigned.

Candidates face their own set of violence-fueled logistical hurdles. These center on how to get their names and messages out in an environment where security concerns make it almost impossible to address the public.

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