BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi authorities fear that the country's security crisis will discourage international monitors from coming here for the January election — a development that could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the crucial vote.
An American official familiar with election planning said the U.S. State Department (search) has been unable to find non-governmental organizations or foreign governments willing to send experts to monitor the election — largely because of security concerns.
Those fears were heightened by the kidnapping this week of CARE International's director for Iraq, Margaret Hassan (search). A British-Irish-Iraqi national, Hassan has lived here for 30 years and stayed on when other international workers fled following the upsurge of bombings and kidnappings. Suicide bombings last week inside the Green Zone (search), a heavily fortified area where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices are located, have stoked those fears.
The election is considered a critical step toward establishing democracy after decades of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Voters will select a 275-member assembly that will draft a constitution, which if ratified will provide the legal foundation for a second general election by the end of next year.
However, the results must be seen as legitimate, not only by Iraq's ethnic and cultural communities but also foreign governments still reluctant to take part in the reconstruction of a country where the United States wields considerable influence.
The presence of international monitors would help convince skeptics that the outcome reflected the will of Iraq's 25 million people, of whom about half are eligible voters.
With a Sunni Muslim insurgency raging and foreigners at risk, fears for the safety of international monitors are real. In Brussels, Belgium, a European Union official said the 25-nation community would like to help with the election, but doesn't know how. European nations have provided monitors for elections in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
"Certainly, we know that the security situation will prevent many international monitors from coming," said Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. "We have arrived at a crucial stage of the preparations and we are trying to overcome a lot of difficulties. We have come a long way."
Despite the uncertainties, the commission issued regulations Wednesday governing the work of election monitors and representatives of the various political parties.
The commission said it won't take responsibility for the security of election monitors and that they will not be permitted to use any of commission's resources, like vehicles. The monitors, it added, will be expected to write a final report but must back their conclusions with evidence.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped the United Nations would assume a major role in helping Iraq plan and organize the election, a role the global organization has played in numerous countries emerging from tyranny or civil strife.
The United Nations is training Iraqis outside Iraq to return here and train other Iraqis in how to run an election. But U.N. chief Kofi Annan has imposed a ceiling of 35 on the number of international staffers permitted in Iraq because of security.
The United Nations pulled all of its international staff from Iraq a year ago, following two bombings at the organization's Baghdad headquarters and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers.
Annan has said he had tried to raise international troops for a brigade to protect U.N. workers in Iraq so more staffers could be sent, but hasn't succeeded.
All that has proven frustrating for Iraqi officials, who had hoped a strong U.N. presence on the ground would confer legitimacy to the electoral process.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari complained that the United Nations was not doing enough to help with the preparations for the election.
"It is unfortunate that the contribution and participation of U.N. employees in this process is not up to expectations," Zebari told reporters. "What is needed is initiative, they need to take the initiation ... there is lack of enthusiasm in following up on obligations."
Zebari said a "very limited" number of additional U.N. experts were expected to arrive to assist in the elections. The number expected, he said, was far smaller than the 300 U.N. workers who monitored the 1999 vote in tiny East Timor, population 600,000, where the electorate decided to secede from Indonesia.
In hopes of improving security in time for the ballot, U.S. and Iraqi government forces have launched new offensive operations against Sunni insurgent strongholds. More are believed planned, perhaps including an all-out assault on the rebel bastion of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
However, a major attack against Fallujah could backfire by alienating the Sunni Muslim minority, which already fears that an election could produce a government dominated by their Shiite rivals.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical group with ties to some insurgents, is threatening to call for an election boycott if Fallujah is attacked.
"It is not possible to consider the elections as an excuse to storm cities," association spokesman Mohammed Bashar al-Faidhi told The Associated Press.