- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

More than half of the voters in Iraq’s most violent cities will be able to participate in the Jan. 30 election, a senior U.S. military commander said yesterday, even as U.S. officials shied away from predicting turnout for the critical vote.

Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler told reporters that voting will proceed in both Fallujah and Ramadi, Sunni Muslim strongholds where violent opposition to the U.S.-led invasion and the interim Iraqi government has been strongest.

“It is our goal to make polling places available so that the preponderance of the [about 500,000 eligible] voters there would, in fact, have the opportunity to vote,” said Gen. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in al Anbar province.

Terrorists continued a campaign of intimidation ahead of the vote, as the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite Muslim party was struck by a suicide bomber. Gunmen also killed three candidates, including two from the alliance led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

An American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad, but, in a bit of good news, a Catholic archbishop kidnapped Monday in northern Iraq was released unharmed.

Turnout has emerged as a key barometer of the success of the Jan. 30 vote, in which more than 100 parties are vying for slots in the 275-seat transitional national assembly. The assembly will draft a new constitution, appoint a president and meet until a permanent government is voted in by the end of the year.

Surveys by the District-based International Republican Institute and other groups have found that a majority of Iraqis want to vote. The al-Mada newspaper this week published a poll indicating that two-thirds of Baghdad’s 5 million residents planned to vote.

But terrorists and insurgent groups have vowed to derail the vote, and some leading Sunni Muslim groups have urged a boycott out of a fear that their political power will be curbed severely.

A strong overall turnout — and a respectable level of participation by Sunnis — would be major victories for the Bush administration, but U.S. officials steadfastly have refused to offer hard benchmarks for success.

With Iraq emerging from more than two decades of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the United States and its coalition allies argue that any reasonably free election would be a huge step forward.

“The fact that the Iraqi people are having elections is a significant achievement,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. “A year ago, people would have looked at that as not very realistic.”

Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said the size of the turnout was less important than the quality of the election process.

“If people decide to boycott an election … that’s their choice,” he said in a briefing last week. “If the process is clean, whether people choose to take advantage of it or not doesn’t undermine its credibility,” he said.

But critics fear that a low turnout in Iraq — or a significant boycott by restive Sunnis — could leave the fledgling government crippled before it gets started. A new assembly dominated by rival Shi’ite Muslim factions could sharpen the country’s sectarian and ethnic strife.

Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Nakib told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that a major Sunni boycott would be tantamount to “treason.”

“Participating is important,” he said, adding, “If the national assembly does not represent all Iraqis, we will enter civil war and division of the country.”

The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance offers some unexpected figures on voter turnout from around the world. Italy, which has averaged 92.5 percent turnout in 14 elections since World War II, boasts the highest participation numbers, followed closely by the Seychelles and Cambodia.

The United States ranked 139th out of 172 countries surveyed, with an average turnout in presidential elections since 1948 of 48.3 percent.

U.S. turnout in the 2000 election was 51.3 percent, but jumped to 60.7 percent in 2004 as terrorism and the war in Iraq became top voter concerns.

In Afghanistan, an estimated 77 percent of the country’s 10.5 million registered voters cast ballots in the October presidential election, the first since U.S.-led forces ousted the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

Leading Iraqi officials have not backed away from issuing turnout estimates.

Farid Ayar, vice president of Iraq’s independent electoral commission, predicted that about 7 million of the country’s 14 million eligible voters will vote.

“Maybe it looks like a small number, but in Europe consider that if you have 40 percent of votes, it’s a legal election,” he said.

Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told the Arabic-language al-Hayat newspaper that he expects between 40 percent and 50 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to vote.

Judy Van Rest, executive vice president of the International Republican Institute, said turnout is only one factor in whether an election is accepted as legitimate.

“You can’t just look at one number,” she said. “There’s the integrity of the vote, the number of choices voters have on the ballot, the information they receive prior to voting.

“Saddam Hussein routinely held elections in which 100 percent of the population turned out to vote for him. I don’t think anyone thought those were legitimate elections.”

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