BAGHDAD, Iraq – Preparations for the Jan. 30 national election are on track despite continuing violence and calls for delaying or boycotting the vote, the U.N. election chief in Iraq (search) says.
"I won't say I am happy, but I am satisfied with the process," Carlos Valenzuela (search) told The Associated Press in an interview. "People tend to have these very unrealistic expectations about elections. ... They are not a panacea, but they seem to me at least at this moment the one way to go that would help the transitional process" in Iraq.
Valenzuela heads a team of 20 U.N. staff in Iraq and 15 more in neighboring Jordan who are giving technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (search), which was set up earlier this year with the help of the United Nations.
The Jan. 30 vote is for a 275-member assembly that will appoint a government and draft a permanent constitution. If adopted in a referendum next year, the constitution would form the legal basis for another general election to be held by Dec. 15.
Leading Sunni Arab clerics have called for a boycott of the vote to protest both the recent U.S. military offensive against the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and the continued presence of American forces in Iraq.
Last week, more than a dozen political groups, including major Sunni and Kurdish parties, called for a delay in the vote to try to widen participation. Shiite parties, which are expected to win the election, insisted the vote be held as scheduled. The Shiites' influential clergy threw its weight behind those parties.
Political figures close to the electoral process say leaders of the Iraqi election commission privately disagreed with calls for delaying the vote, arguing that such a move would require a prolonged and tortuous process to reach a political consensus.
Iraq's interim constitution adopted in March and a U.N. Security Council resolution approved three months later both stipulated that elections must be held by the end of January.
A Sunni-led insurgency in Baghdad and to the north and west of the capital poses a major security concern for the vote organizers. Already, the security situation in Anbar province, home to the insurgency's major centers like Fallujah, have prevented voter rolls from being verified there.
In early November, insurgents torched a warehouse in Mosul that contained information on thousands of households. The documents were supposed to have been handed out to family heads when they went to collect their monthly food rations.
The process was abandoned in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city with 1 million people, because of poor security. But it's continuing elsewhere in the province, said Valenzuela. There also have been brief disruptions of the process in the towns of Baqouba and Samarra north of Baghdad because of security, he said.
"There have been intimidation in many places, but the process is still going ahead" said Valenzuela, who spoke at his office in the Green Zone, the specially protected area in Baghdad that's home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government offices.
Valenzuela said the election commission has come up with substitute plans to verify voter rolls in Anbar and Mosul but refused to elaborate.
The voter rolls are based on a data base created in the 1990s for a nationwide distribution of food rations that was established after the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Heads of families collecting the monthly ration are being asked to verify whether details of their households, like the number of children and their age, are correct. If not, they are asked to amend the details and return the paper. That then becomes the voter roll.
The process will end Dec. 15.
In a separate development, Valenzuela said Egypt has been added to a list of 14 countries where expatriate Iraqis will be allowed to vote. A seven-day voter registration will be launched, probably in early January. The voter rolls will be displayed for two days and voting will take place over three days, starting Jan. 28.
The 15 countries include the United States, Britain, Jordan and Iran.
The International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-associated agency, will be in charge of organizing the vote abroad in which up to four million Iraqis are expected to take part. The out-of-country vote will cost $92 million.
The Iraqi electoral commission decided to allow out-of-country voting over opposition by the U.N. team, which argued that such an operation was costly, posed logistical problems and opened the door to fraud.
However, political parties put pressure on the commission to allow it.
"There will be allegations, fraud and all that. But the commission felt that, yes, that was a problem, but they also felt that the integrity of the process will also be questioned if out-of-country voting was not taken," Valenzuela said. "Most of the time they (the commission) take our advice. Sometimes they don't."
Farid Ayar, the commission's spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday that expatriate Iraqis will be given a receipt when they register to vote and will be required to produce it when they cast their ballots.
To prevent double voting, he said, a voter's receipt would be marked once the ballot is cast.