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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

SYRIA: Iraqis start to register for 30 January elections

DAMASCUS, 19 January 2005 (IRIN) - Voter registration among Iraqis resident in Syria got off to a slow start this week but is expected to pick up later on, Luis Martinez-Betanzos, country head of the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting (OCV) Programme in Syria, told IRIN.

On Monday, the first day of registration, a total of 1,400 Iraqis registered to “have their say over the future of Iraq,” Martinez-Betanzos said. "The first day is usually slow," he added. "(Voters) will think, chat with their neighbours, and then they will register in mass numbers."

But by Tuesday the total number of Iraqis who had registered to vote in the Iraqi elections later this month had reached only 4,000.

Predicting final numbers is hard, Martinez-Betanzos said, as no one had a clear idea of the number of Iraqis in Syria or how many would register. However, he added, based on his conversations with leaders of the local Iraqi community, the commonly quoted figure of 400,000 in Syria was probably too high. He said that if as many 50,000 registered he would be happy.

One main concern was that Iraqis still thought that they didn't have to do anything until 30 January. "It is a long process - first registration of political entities [political parties], then registration of voters, then voting," he explained.

"I'm not sure the Iraqis understand this yet," he said. "If an Iraqi shows up [at the polls] on 28 January without a registration card, he won't be able to vote."

To vote, Iraqis living in Syria and Lebanon first have to travel to one of the 10 polling centres located around Damascus to register. After registration ends on 23 January, the names of registered voters will be on display to the general public in these centres for two days. The vote, which
will elect an Iraqi National Assembly with the power to choose the president and his deputies and draft a new national constitution, will be held over three days, from 28-30 January.

"This election is very important. It will shape the face of Iraq in the future," said an Iraqi at a public awareness meeting held on Saturday in a wedding hall in Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added that "I want all Iraqis who have the right to vote to
share actively in this process."

A respected member of the Iraqi Orthodox Christian community, he said he was also a representative in the outreach programme of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN-affiliated body responsible for voting in the Iraqi elections outside of Iraq.

In order to encourage voting, both Muslim and Christian leaders have been contacted, Martinez-Betanzos said, among them Abd al-Hakim al-Safi, the representative in Syria of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shi'ite religious authority in Iraq, and Father Salmat Youssef, a priest in the Assyrian Church.

"We encourage political entities [parties] to encourage their followers to register," he said. "People have to make the decision now, if they want to vote. Later they can take a second decision on who to vote for."

The IOM's role goes no further than encouraging Iraqis in Syria and Lebanon to vote: electioneering is left to the parties themselves. The Syrian government has agreed to allow campaigns of political entities certified on ballot papers.

"With democracy, it will take years and years," Martinez-Betansoz told a crowd of around 60 Iraqis who had gathered in the wedding hall in Jaramana on Saturday to find out more about the election, registration and polling procedures. "This is the beginning and it is not perfect. You have to make the decision if you want to go and register."

A former Iraqi policeman at the meeting, who fled the mounting violence in Iraq, agreed. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that the elections were a very good thing. "I will definitely vote, but I don't have any idea about the candidates yet," he said. "But the most important thing is guaranteeing stability after the election."

Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs



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