- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Iraqi elections scheduled for January will go ahead and will represent the popular will, thanks in large measure to the courageous efforts of Iraqi politicians and organizers, both U.N. and American election advisers say.

But much of the hard work of registering voters, organizing and training parties and setting up polling places must take place in near secrecy for fear of attracting the attention of terrorists bent on derailing the process, the experts said.

“I think elections can be credible,” said Carlos Valenzuela, the top U.N. elections adviser in Iraq, in an interview yesterday with Reuters news agency. “It is a difficult situation, but when you have a transitional election by definition it is conducted in an environment that is less than ideal.”

A Washington spokesman for the International Republican Institute (IRI), which advises political parties around the world on how to organize elections, agreed.

“It isn’t going to be smooth and pretty. There’s going to be controversy, fighting and challenging of results, and plenty of credible evidence that here or there, there were some kind of shenanigans or cases of violence,” said the IRI official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“But it’s going to happen, and people will say it was what it was. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to take a while to sort it out. But I think they are going to do it.”

Nevertheless, the threat of violence is so great that officials on all sides are reluctant to discuss in detail how they are preparing for the election of a 275-member national assembly that in turn will draw up a new constitution.

The United Nations, which suffered 22 deaths in a bomb blast a year ago, has limited its non-Iraqi staff in the country to no more than 35 persons, of whom only 10 are working to prepare for elections.

Officials with IRI and its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), said they each have roughly a dozen expatriates directing larger staffs of Iraqis, and conceded their movements have been severely restricted by the level of violence.

“Lots of meetings are canceled, and a lot of what we do is close to Baghdad,” the IRI staff member said. “But the greatest risk in all of this would seem to be borne by the Iraqis who are working most closely with us.

“These people can only be under our security umbrella for certain portions of time. When they move out from under it, they are extremely vulnerable. The terrorists regard them as collaborators and high-value targets,” he said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari criticized the United Nations this week for not doing more to help, pointing out that its staff in Iraq falls far short of the 300-member contingent it sent to East Timor for an independence referendum in 1999.

“It is unfortunate that the contribution and participation of U.N. employees in this process is not up to expectations,” Mr. Zebari said.

U.N. officials said that member nations had not responded to an appeal for troops to guard U.N. workers and facilities so more staffers could be sent in. But the IRI official in Washington said the United Nations could and should do more.

“I know the Iraqis have been appealing to the United Nations to come in and lend a hand, and it seems to me there is a lot of politics in this,” said the IRI official.

“One would hope the U.N. could see beyond that, and look into its international obligations and its obligation to the people of Iraq. Iraqis see them a little as missing in action.”

Mr. Valenzuela told Reuters that even the small number of experts in his team was adequate to meet the U.N. mandate, which was simply to advise the Iraqi electoral commission on how to organize the vote.

“From the very beginning, in February when we first came, the U.N. said this should be an Iraqi-led process,” he said. “Now people say, ‘You are letting the Iraqis do this all by themselves,’ but it was always meant to be like that.”

Mr. Valenzuela said the nine-member Iraqi commission, on which he sits as a nonvoting international commissioner, would be ready to begin voter registration Monday.

Voters will sign up at established food-distribution points that have existed since Saddam Hussein’s time — logistically the most practical way forward, but a security nightmare.

The closer the election date gets, the more violence is predicted by security experts working in Iraq. Registration centers and voting booths present especially easy targets.

Iraqis have said they are not sure they are willing to risk their lives to cast a ballot. But officials say the fear of attacks is not discouraging election workers.

“The people we have working with us in Iraq, Iraqi and expatriate, they are charging away believing they can make a difference. We are optimistic — but Iraq presents the greatest challenge,” said Les Campbell, an NDI official in Washington.

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