Monday, July 26, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq is planning to send 150,000 schoolteachers on a one-day mission to knock on every door and conduct the first census since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq, like many nations, has carried out an official count of its citizens every decade.

But the new government has decided that existing Saddam-era data is so outdated and selective that it is willing to allocate $60 million to $100 million to update the information.

The 1997 census did not count the three Kurdish provinces then separated by the no-fly zone, nor an estimated 4 million Iraqi refugees.

This also was the height of the “Arabization” program, in which Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities were forced to list their ethnicity as “Arab” or risk losing their homes, jobs or lives.

“In the old days, the census was conducted for the interests of the government,” said Nuha Yousif, census manager in Iraq’s Ministry of Planning.

“People will want to participate in the census because they know that this time it is information to build the new Iraq,” she said.

The census, slated for Oct. 12, will help determine voter rolls for elections, which are to take place in January.

It requires the nation to grind to a halt for a day, with children staying home and most people taking a day off from work.

The planned exercise is intriguing both for what its organizers will include and for what they will leave out.

For example, the Ministry of Planning will ask about religion, but will not break Muslims down by Shi’ites, Sunnis or other sects. Nor will the ministry harvest data about salaries, sexual orientation or country of origin for foreigners.

To be sure, an accurate, timely and undisputed accounting of Iraq’s religions and ethnic groups could help settle lingering land disputes and clarify the relative power of political parties and religious leaders as the country plunges into its first real election.

It could also give the Iraqi people, for the first time, a clear and unbiased picture of what their highly diverse nation looks like in terms of demographics, education, longevity and quality of life.

Muhammad Al-Ma’moorey, assistant dean of Baghdad University’s College of Administration and Economics, said a legitimate economic census could attract foreign investors and World Bank support by pinpointing the country’s strengths and needs.

But skeptics warn that the country is not yet stable and say that too-precise information could exacerbate divisive religion-driven politics and further marginalize minorities.

The United Nations says a premature census is potentially divisive and unnecessary.

“Under normal conditions, it takes from three to five years for a government to plan and conduct a census, and this assumes relative political stability,” said Mary Chamie, chief of the Demographic and Social Statistics branch of the U.N. Statistics Division.

She said the new government needs up-to-date demographic and economic statistics for planning and allocation of resources. Some of that information, she said, could be extrapolated from the 1997 census and other data sources.

For example, Shi’ite Muslims are thought to make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s approximately 25 million people.

The remainder are predominantly Sunni Muslim and Kurdish, although the percentages are in dispute.

A small minority of Iraqis are Assyrian, Turkmen, Chaldean and Assyrian, not to mention the number of foreigners living here.

Shi’ite leaders have been claiming a majority stake in new government infrastructure, saying it accurately reflects their numbers. But many Sunni Arabs say they have a near-equal population if one includes Sunni Kurds.

Likewise, an exact demographic profile of Kirkuk — an oil-rich city in the north that is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs — could determine whether it is ultimately apportioned to the Kurdish north or the Sunni Arab center in a federal Iraq.

“It is not important to ask about sect,” said a senior Ministry of Planning official. “We are all Iraqis.”

Abdul Hadi Mahmood al-Zaidi, a deputy chief of the predominantly Sunni Islamic Organization for Information, said the government should settle the Sunni-Shi’ite question, but keep the answer confidential.

“I worry that the figures could be exploited by some who think that because they are the majority they can exploit their power,” he said.

Mrs. Chamie of the U.N. statistics bureau said in many countries, religion “is a Pandora’s box that leaders are reluctant to open.” She compared it to the sensitivity about race in the United States.

The Ministry of Planning said that, aside from coming three years early, this census is much like any other.

They will use largely the same form as in previous years: asking familiar questions about age, education, religion, family births and deaths, number of people in the household and sources of income.

One key difference is that data from this census will be shared with the Iraqi people, instead of sealed away and used by the government for intelligence and intimidation.

Even though that is consistent with international standards, nothing in Iraq is quite so simple.

Census officials said last week that they expect results to be made public in late December. That doesn’t give the government much time to analyze the data, nor the public much time to absorb it before the January election.

This is worrisome to U.N. demographers, who say the census should ideally be as separate as possible from the electoral process to ensure the impartiality and integrity of the accounting.

“This is just a coincidence,” said the planning ministry’s Ms. Yousif, with a tight smile. “We are not political, but scientific.”

The Interior and Defense ministries will coordinate security for the census takers, mostly teachers who will work in their own neighborhoods, where they are already known and trusted.

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