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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

26 January 2005

Arrangements In Place for Iraqi Vote, United Nations Says

Iraqi people now must confront their fears and vote

By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent

United Nations -- Preparations are on target and elections will take place in Iraq as scheduled January 30 despite security concerns; "that is a fact," said U.N. Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast.

"Everything is done.  The arrangements are in place," and it is now up to the Iraqi people to proceed with the vote which, "however imperfect, is the right instrument of policy for a democratic political transition in Iraq," Prendergast said January 26 at a press conference on the elections and the U.N. role as technical adviser.

Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. Electoral Assistance Division, said that the technical mechanisms now in place are "very sound," but the Iraqi people will be the ones who will have to determine whether the elections are "credible."

Perelli praised Iraqi election officials for the arrangements that include:  registering more than 14.2 million voters; setting up 5,300 polling centers with a total of 29,000 voting stations; and recruiting and training more than 149,000 people to staff the polling places on election day.  Preparations are on target with 21 million ballots for the national assembly election, 21 million ballots for the governorate elections, and 4.5 million ballots for the Kurdistan assembly elections having been printed and delivered.

"For me as a professional of elections, I am absolutely amazed at how far the (electoral) commission of Iraq has come considering that eight months ago it didn't exist and they are now 1,000 staff strong," she said.

More than 55,000 people have already signed up to monitor the elections and more are expected to enlist as Election Day draws near.  That means there will be more than one party agent and national monitor at each polling center, Perelli added.

"That is extremely important," she said.  Beyond demonstrating the interest of the different political parties, the large number of monitors shows that "Iraqi civil society has responded to this challenge and in rather important numbers considering the risks."

Both U.N. officials recognized that conditions for elections are far from ideal, primarily because of the violence.

The critical challenge remaining is for the Iraqi people to confront their fears and go to the polls on Sunday, Perelli said.

"Right now, the Iraqi citizens are faced with a very tough decision," she continued.  "As the Timorese, Salvadorans, and Afghans before them, they have to confront their fears and confront their hopes and decide by themselves whether they consider this election is important enough, valid enough, legitimate enough to risk their lives and go and vote."

"We know that some Iraqis don't feel ready," Prendergast added.  "Others are critical of the election system that was chosen, or they are suspicious of the impartiality of the independent electoral commission which the United Nations helped to chose, or they otherwise feel excluded.  I don't think any of this should seem surprising.  Iraq is emerging from an extremely traumatic chapter in its history."

Nevertheless, the under secretary-general said, "nothing justifies intimidating or murdering voters, electoral workers, or candidates.  That is plain wrong and it cannot be justified under any circumstances."

As an organizer of elections around the world and a former political activist, Perelli has participated in many elections.  Although the violence in Iraq seems overwhelming at times, the upcoming elections are not that different from those held over the years in East Timor, Sierra Leone, or El Salvador.  "Unfortunately, there is no immunity for electoral workers in other parts of the world either," she said.

"Every election is unique, but they share a lot of traits," Perelli said.

"Is this the first time that we see an election under bullets?  No.  If not under bullets, in East Timor it was under the machete," she said.  "So basically there has been violence in other elections in which I have participated  . . . in Sierra Leone and El Salvador there was incredible violence."

"Is it the first time electoral workers have been targeted?  Unfortunately not," Perelli said.

Another common characteristic all these elections share is that, at the end of the day, no matter what has been done to support the elections technically, "nothing replaces the will of the people," she said.

What has been different, the U.N. election official said, is the degree of media attention and the fact that U.N. election workers have had restricted contact with the local population because of security concerns.

"It is the first time I participated in an election which is being discussed in four different electoral campaigns around the world.  Media attention is greater," Perelli said.

Prendergast added that the January 30 elections "shouldn't be seen as a be-all-end-all event" but as "an important staging post along an evolving transition."

"Inclusiveness is the key to a successful transition and, fortunately, there will be other opportunities in 2005 to achieve greater inclusion starting with the constitutional process with the referendum in October and a second general election in December of this year," he said.

"We strongly hope this election will be seen as part of a broader and longer part of the transition that will help to stabilize Iraq in the interest of the Iraqi people.  We encourage all Iraqis to exercise their democratic rights," the undersecretary general said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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