Originally created 01/30/05

Iraqi participation is the crucial question



BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Millions of ballots have been printed, thousands of voting booths assembled and 300,000 Iraqi and American troops put at the ready. Everything is in place for Iraq's national elections. All that's needed now are voters.

Participation is the crucial question in Sunday's parliamentary election, which the insurgents, mostly Sunni Arabs, have vowed to disrupt. Substantial Sunni turnout in the face of intimidation and murder could spell the beginning of the end of the rebellion and hasten the day when America can bring home its 150,000 troops.

But if the vast majority of Sunnis shun the polls - either out of fear or lack of confidence in the process ñ it would undercut the new government's legitimacy, widen the fault line between Sunnis and the majority Shiites and possibly doom the American military to years of struggle against a determined foe.

To encourage a big turnout, U.S. and Iraqi authorities will impose sweeping security measures ñ sealing the country's borders, imposing travel restrictions and putting swarms of armed guards at polling stations. American troops have been rounding up hundreds of suspected rebels to head off election-day attacks.

Iraq's 14 million eligible voters will cast ballots at 5,220 polling centers, choosing a 275-member National Assembly and provincial legislatures. The National Assembly will then appoint a new government. Voters in the Kurdish-ruled area of northern Iraq will also elect a new regional parliament.

An additional 1.2 million Iraqi exiles can vote in 14 countries, including the United States, over a three-day period starting Friday.

Final results will not be known for a week or more, but preliminary figures should be available hours after polls close.

Iraqis will vote for lists of candidates, rather than individuals, and the alliance endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, is expected to fare best.

Other major contender lists are led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite; and interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab. A Kurdish list is expected to draw most votes among the Kurds, about 15 percent of the population.

In all, some 19,000 candidates are competing. At least 30 percent of the candidates on each list are women, by law.

Shiites, an estimated 60 percent of the 26 million population, are expected to turn out in huge numbers, encouraged by clergymen who sense empowerment after generations of domination by the Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis, by the same token, dread the loss of supremacy, and many insurgent attacks have targeted Shiites, including a car bombing outside a Shiite mosque Friday that killed at least 14 people.

A turnout that fails to attract Sunni Arab participation could produce a government unacceptable to Sunnis. This, warns Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, could send Iraq into a downward spiral into civil war.

Mindful of the dangers, Shiite leaders promise to guarantee a role for Sunnis in the new government.

"No matter what the results are, we will work and insist on achieving the principle of participation of all parts of the Iraqi people," said Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the al-Sistani-endorsed ticket.

But those assurances may not be enough for the millions of Sunni Arabs who live in areas identified by the U.S. military as the most dangerous ñ Baghdad and the provinces of Anbar, Salaheddin and Nineveh. Those areas, which also have Shiite communities, make up more than 40 percent of the nation's population.

Voters in areas deemed too dangerous will be allowed to cast ballots outside their home districts.

Insurgents have cast a menacing pall, blasting polling stations, killing electoral workers and candidates and torching warehouses holding election materials.

The chief U.N. electoral official here, Carlos Valenzuela, describes intimidation of election workers as "high and very serious" but expresses confidence the voting will go ahead.

Even without the specter of violence, organizing such an election in a nation without a solid democratic foundation was a huge undertaking.

A new election law had to be put in place, voter rolls updated, millions of ballots printed mostly in Canada and Australia and poll workers trained ñ all against the backdrop of violence.

With so many candidates, most Iraqis know the names of only a few on each list. Many names have been kept secret for security reasons. And because of the violence, candidates haven't been able to campaign or press the flesh at public rallies.

That leaves most campaigns relying on word of mouth, election posters plastered on walls, and TV and newspaper ads by the better-financed candidates like Allawi. Because of the power of incumbency, Allawi also has been able to fly around the country, touring reconstruction sites, with reporters in tow.

"Generally, I cannot go out and meet people or knock on doors to get out the vote like they do in the West," said Salama Khafaji, a Shiite woman candidate who escaped an assassination attempt this month.

As a result, many Iraqis will likely vote according to what their imams or tribal leaders recommend.

The new assembly will elect a three-member presidential council, which will choose a prime minister subject to legislative approval. The assembly will also draft a constitution. If voters ratify that later this year, new national elections will be held at the end of 2005.

Allawi is expected to try to remain prime minister. His closest rival is likely to be his finance minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is running on the al-Sistani-endorsed ticket.

But it all comes down to turnout. And how that will go remains unclear.

An International Republican Institute poll conducted in late December and early January found 80 percent of Iraqis overall saying - at the time - that they were very likely or somewhat likely to vote.

Nearly 50 percent of Iraq's Sunni population said ñ again at the time ñ that they were likely or somewhat likely to vote, according to the poll.

The institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy, said it conducted 1,900 face-to-face interviews in 16 of the country's 18 provinces, and gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Voters will elect a 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial legislatures. People in the Kurdish-ruled region of northern Iraq also are choosing a new parliament.