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IRAQ: Organizing the Elections

Author: Esther Pan
January 25, 2005

What are the organizational challenges of the January 30 Iraqi elections?

The main one is the threat of violence from the ongoing insurgency. Against that background, Iraqi elections workers, aided by a small contingent of international election specialists, are preparing for the first contested vote in Iraq in more than 40 years. Their primary tasks: organize lists of voters and establish polling stations across the nation so voters can choose 275 members of a transitional assembly, 18 provincial councils, and, in the northern provinces, a Kurdish regional government. There are more than 7,000 candidates running on 111 electoral slates for seats in the transitional assembly.

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Which agency is in charge of the elections?

The Iraqi Independent Election Commission. It is made up of seven Iraqi commissioners and one nonvoting member, U.N. elections official Carlos Valenzuela. The commission was created in 2004 to lay the groundwork for elections at the recommendation of the United Nations, particularly Carina Perelli, head of a U.N. assessment mission to Iraq.

How many people are eligible to vote?

Roughly 14 million Iraqis in the country and some 1.5 million Iraqis living abroad. About 5,600 polling stations will be set up in Iraq for Election Day; expatriates can vote in 14 other countries.

Who is eligible to vote?

In Iraq, anyone who was born on or before December 31, 1986. Outside of Iraq, eligible voters must be 18 or older and an Iraqi citizen or the child of a male Iraqi citizen.

What special measures have been taken for Election Day?

January 30 has been declared a national holiday. On the days leading up to and after the election, Iraq's borders will be sealed and private vehicles will be banned from the roads in an attempt to deter suicide bombings. The national state of emergency imposed by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in November 2004 has been extended, which means curfews from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in most cities.

How much will the elections cost?

Iraq has set aside $250 million to pay for the elections, with another $92 million to cover the costs of the expatriate vote.

Who will staff the polling stations?

Some 200,000 Iraqi election workers and a handful of international advisers. Attacks on election workers have made election work dangerous, even life-threatening, and hundreds of staffers have resigned. Officials won't reveal the location of polling stations in many of the country's most restive areas until immediately before the election.

Who will protect polling stations?

Some 150,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers. Some experts say U.S. troops have begun to limit their aggressive patrols in the country's north and south and withdraw to their bases, leaving the bulk of security duties in those areas to Iraqi forces on Election Day. "The U.S. military will have a small footprint there. People don't want to see American soldiers," says Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Still, U.S. forces "will be within easy reach of each polling station in case the Iraqi forces are overrun," says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

What are the lists of voters based on?

The distribution lists for the Oil-for-Food Program, a nationwide system of food rations established after the United Nations imposed economic sanctions in the wake of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. These lists have provided a nearly complete accounting of Iraq's population, experts say. The lists were further verified by asking family heads to confirm the data on their households contained in the lists. This updated information became the voter roll. The verification process in Iraq ended December 15. For overseas Iraqis, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) set up 74 registration centers in 36 cities in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia where voters could sign up January 20-23.

What are the voting procedures?

Each polling station will be staffed with workers who will welcome voters, check them against the voter rolls, and supervise the voting process. Once voters have marked ballots and placed them in ballot boxes, their hands will be stained with indelible ink to prevent repeat voting. Iraqis overseas were given a receipt when they registered; to vote, they will be required to produce the receipt, which will then be marked by an election worker to prevent re-use.

How will the votes be counted?

Farid Ayar, the election commission's spokesman, will oversee an informal tally of the national votes immediately after polls close at 5 p.m. on January 30. Then, all the ballots will transported to the so-called Green Zone, the heavily guarded area of central Baghdad around Saddam Hussein's former presidential compound that is the headquarters of the interim Iraqi government. There the votes will be formally counted, a process experts say will take two to three weeks.

Who will determine if the election is free and fair?

The Iraqi election commission. Iraqi nongovernmental organizations are also assembling about 10,000 Iraqis to act as election observers, The Associated Press reported December 23.

Will international observers be on hand?

Some 35 U.N. staffers have been sent to monitor the Iraqi elections; U.N. officials attribute the relatively small group to security concerns. Another group, the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, will monitor the election from neighboring Jordan because of the ongoing insurgency. The international mission has members from Albania, Britain, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico, and Yemen. The Washington Post reported January 22 that this group may send only one monitor into Iraq to evaluate the elections as they happen. Other organizations that have monitored elections, including the U.S. Congress, the European Union, and the Atlanta-based Carter Center, declined to send observers to Iraq because of fears for their safety.

What are the top security concerns?

Attacks on candidates, voters, and voting places. On January 23, insurgent leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi declared "fierce wa" on the elections and vowed to disrupt them. Many officials have questioned whether the lack of security has made the country too unstable to hold a vote. "On a logical basis, there are signs that it will be a tough call to hold the election," Iraqi president Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar told Reuters January 5. He said the United Nations should make that call. On January 6, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, confirmed that major parts of four provinces--home to some 45 percent of Iraq's population--were not safe enough for balloting. He said his troops would step up some counterinsurgency activities in the Sunni areas to try to secure them before the vote, and left open the possibility that voting would not be held in those areas if they are still too dangerous. In the other 14 provinces where voting is certain to take place, the main worries are:

  • Safety of candidates. Three candidates have already been killed, two from Allawi's slate, the Iraqi List, and one from the pro-monarchy party. While assassination is a constant risk for Iraqi public figures--dozens of politicians have been killed in the last year--the pace of the attacks has increased as the election approaches, experts say. Nearly all the slates are refusing to publish their candidates' names until immediately before the election, the Los Angeles Times reported January 19.
  • Safety of election workers. At least 10 election workers have been killed, and the rest are under constant threat. Seven hundred workers for the Mosul election commission resigned after their lives were threatened, the AP reported December 30.
  • Safety of voters. Many experts fear voters will be targeted, either at polling stations or after voting, when the indelible ink on their hands could mark them for attack. "The insurgents are definitely going to come up with something," Katzman says. "The question is what."
  • Compromised ballots. Preventing sabotage of the ballots en route to Baghdad is a major concern, some experts say. Road travel is hazardous; the U.S.-led coalition has not yet been able to secure the route linking central Baghdad to the Baghdad airport or many other highways where insurgents plant roadside bombs. "If all the votes from, say, Ninevah province, are lost, what happens?" Rubin says.
  • Outbreaks of violence. Katzman says that, with the country's security forces massed around polling stations, insurgents will likely hit elsewhere: banks, oil pipelines, electricity infrastructure, and police stations. Their targets may also include foreign embassies or hotels where foreigners are staying. "I think they're going to attack where you don't expect it," Katzman says. "When the cops are guarding the parade, the robbers rob the bank."
Where is the violence expected to be concentrated?

Most likely in the same areas that have consistently been dangerous for U.S. and Iraqi troops: the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad, and, more recently, the city of Mosul. The northern city has become a hotbed of violence since insurgents fled there after being routed from their stronghold in Falluja in November. A December 23 suicide attack on a U.S. base in Mosul killed 22 people and injured more than 60. It's also possible, experts say, that insurgents will target southern cities while attention is focused elsewhere. These could include Basra--where an explosion at a British base January 20 injured nine Britons and several Iraqi civilians--Kut, Najaf, or Diwaniya.

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