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Election Workers on Front Lines

When Karim Khodeir (search) thinks of Sunday's historic elections, two images pop into his head: One is a bloodied portrait of car bombers ramming into lines of voters. The other is brighter, one of hopeful Iraqis freely casting ballots for the first time in decades.

It's that second image that keeps him going.

"We all have to sacrifice for our country," he said. "This is our chance to show the world that Iraqis care about their country."

On Sunday, Khodeir will be among about 200,000 election employees checking voter IDs, handing out ballots and later counting them. In the war of intimidation that has marred the election process, election workers have been on the front line, facing threats from insurgents and, in some cases, death.

"We're so used to receiving threats, they've become as common as smoking cigarettes," said Amer Latif al-Yahia (search), director of the electoral commission's office in eastern Diyala province.

He said some employees have received letters warning them to quit their jobs or be "slaughtered." Others have been told their children will be kidnapped.

Al-Yahia hasn't received any written warnings. But attackers have lobbed hand grenades at his house and peppered it with machine-gun fire twice. The windows were shattered and the walls pockmarked. He escaped unhurt.

Al-Yahia said that in some areas of his religiously mixed province many people had been willing to work for the commission. In others, mostly those dominated by Sunni Arabs, recruiting had been more difficult and workers had to be brought in from elsewhere.

The Sunni Arabs have been the least enthusiastic about the vote -- an election expected to confirm their loss of power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein (search). Some will boycott it either out of fear of attacks from the mostly Sunni Arab insurgency or out of conviction that a vote held in the presence of foreign troops is illegitimate.

By contrast, Shiites (search) and Kurds (search), eager to affirm their power in the new Iraq, are keen to make the process work.

The chief U.N. electoral official here, Carlos Valenzuela, has described intimidation of election workers as "high and very serious." Commission spokesman, Farid Ayar, said 10 election workers have been killed so far.

Earlier this month, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. general responsible for security in northern Iraq, said that virtually every election worker in Nineveh province, which includes predominantly Arab Sunni Mosul, quit because of security fears. On Friday, commission member Adel al-Lami said all the employees had been replaced, but 90 percent had to be brought in from outside the province.

In ethnically mixed Kirkuk, several commission employees resigned about four days ago, but the vacancies had been filled, al-Lami said.

Even in heavily Shiite areas of south-central Iraq, a region far more stable than Mosul or Baghdad, several election workers were threatened and have resigned, a senior U.S. Embassy official has said.

Perhaps the most brazen of the assaults on election employees was a daylight attack in the heart of Baghdad last month, when three pistol-wielding gunmen dragged five election employees from a car and executed three of them. The two others escaped.

That attack left Noor Qais, a 24-year-old election employee in Baghdad, rethinking her job, albeit briefly. "I stopped for a minute, but then I thought: 'The election is a goal. We have to continue this path to the end."'

Despite the setbacks, election officials said they were sure there would be no shortage of workers on election day. For some, the work is seen as a national duty. But in a country plagued with unemployment, others say it's a way to put food on the table.

The commission pays $200 for those willing to work the election and the few following days, a generous amount by Iraqi standards.

Employees know the risks, and many try to play it safe.

Since he started working with the commission, al-Yahia, a lawyer, had to hire guards. During one of the attacks on his house, the guards traded fire with the militants.

"I had no relations with political parties or anything, but since I joined the commission, I started having enemies," he said.

Khodeir, who will be working in a Baghdad voting center on election day, doesn't volunteer information about his job to neighbors; they think he works for a company.

Some family members and friends have pleaded with him to quit out of fear for his life. But he says the stakes are too high to bail out.

"It's our chance to express our opinions so that our country can progress."