U.N. Official Says Iraqi Vote 'Is on Track'
Plans Described as Almost Complete Despite Continuing Violence, Threats
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A12
BAGHDAD, Jan. 16 -- The voting lists have been checked, the ballots printed. Red stain is ready to mark the finger of each voter, and the poll locations and names of candidates -- until now secret -- soon will be published. Despite threats, a rushed timetable and the murder of eight election workers, preparations for Iraq's elections are almost finished, according to the U.N. representative on the country's elections board.
"Everything is on track," Carlos Valenzuela, a veteran election organizer for the United Nations, said Sunday. "It was a very tight time frame. Luckily, there was no slippage."
Valenzuela, who has helped carry out elections in such places as East Timor, Cambodia and the Palestinian territories, said he was surprised that logistics for the Jan. 30 elections have been assembled in less than a year. He shied from questions about whether the threats of violence that are expected to keep large numbers of voters home would irreparably mar the results.
"There isn't a yardstick" of turnout to pronounce the election valid, he said. "There is no magic number. At the end of the day, you have to leave it to the Iraqi public as to whether they believe this process was credible or not."
The Bush administration has said that the creation of a fledgling democracy in Iraq would be a positive outcome of the war, after no weapons of mass destruction were found. But the prospects for successful elections have been shaken by a campaign of bombings, shootings, kidnappings and threats by opponents. Many Sunni Muslim Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, say they are too afraid to vote. Their absence could upset the fragile sectarian balance in Iraq among Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds.
Even as Valenzuela spoke to a small group of reporters in Baghdad, opponents of the election circulated leaflets in the northern town of Baiji, warning against going to the polls.
"Baiji will be under curfew" from the insurgents, Omar, 26, wearing a long beard, told a reporter as he read one of the leaflets in the town. "They are not going to be afraid of the police or the American forces. They are going to attack the polling centers or anyone calling for elections."
Officials have developed a plan to encircle the 5,700 polling centers with rings of Iraqi security forces and, at the outermost ring, U.S. and British troops. But Iraqi officials have warned that they expect a series of large attacks on election day and in the days before.
Valenzuela said such attacks could still upset the process. "It was always predicted that violence would increase through the election. This level of violence is not a surprise," he said. But "if something happens terribly bad and the electoral preparations could not be completed, that could jeopardize the elections."
Valenzuela and a team of about 20 U.N. experts are advising the Iraqi election commission, which includes eight Iraqi members and Valenzuela.
"We have not had mass resignations" of election workers who feel threatened, he insisted, despite some reports of wholesale quitting. "I am surprised there have not been a lot more resignations because the level of intimidation from insurgents is quite high."
The election workers are "some of the most courageous people I have seen," he said. Despite the deaths of eight workers, the election commission has been able to recruit workers to staff the polls and supervise the elections, he said. More than 3 million Iraqis went to election officials to correct errors in the food distribution rosters that were used as a base for preparing the voter lists, and another 1.2 million Iraqis made new registrations, he said.
Valenzuela said reports that the election commission would not publicize the names of all the candidates or the polling place locations because of security fears were "absolutely not true." The candidate lists had not yet been published because it was a "massive data entry problem" to compile and check nearly 19,000 candidates for National Assembly and local offices. That would be done soon, he said.
The election commission decided to stain the finger of each voter to keep them from voting again, despite concerns that doing so might scare some people from going to the polls, he said. And he defended the use of the stain, despite problems during the recent presidential election in Afghanistan in which the wrong ink was applied and many voters found it could be easily removed.
"I tested it myself. I can tell you it cannot be taken off," said Valenzuela, who has helped supervise 14 elections. "It really is top level."
The campaign against the elections and the U.S. presence in Iraq has put anyone who associates with Westerners or the Iraqi government at risk.
A group of about 30 insurgents brazenly set up a roadblock on the main road southeast from Baghdad to Kut on Sunday, witnesses said, stopping cars and searching for evidence that the occupants had any such associations.
Gunmen in police uniforms on Sunday ambushed a car carrying a prominent Shiite candidate, but she escaped injury when her bodyguards returned fire, one of her aides said.
Salama Khafaji was traveling in central Baghdad when gunmen opened fire about 1 p.m. from a car and a motorcycle, according to the aide, Fateh Kashf Ghataa, who was riding with her. Their security guards returned fire and the gunmen fled, the Associated Press reported.
In another incident Sunday, insurgents firing at U.S. military patrols in Mosul shot and critically wounded two Iraqi children, according to U.S. military authorities.
The United States also took the first steps toward reviving Iraq's air force, handing over three C-130 military cargo planes at a secret ceremony at an undisclosed date in an undisclosed location, U.S. authorities announced Sunday. The planes will be used to transport soldiers and equipment.
Special correspondent Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.