BAGHDAD, Iraq – Along with their monthly ration of sugar, rice and flour, Iraqis are receiving a piece of paper promoted as a key to a democratic Iraq (search): a voter registration sheet.
Like many things in this country, however, the voter registration process has been overshadowed by bombings, kidnappings and a military assault launched to pacify the insurgent-stronghold of Fallujah (search) ahead of the January vote.
Providing security for the election is a major challenge. And so is educating the public that lived for decades under a dictatorship that tightly controlled information and brutally crushed dissent.
"The Iraqi voter doesn't understand the elections," said Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (search). "Seventy-four percent of the people think this is a presidential election," he added, citing one survey.
Instead, Iraqis will choose a national assembly, which among other things will draft a permanent constitution. If the document is ratified in a referendum, another election will be held in December 2005.
Voter registration began Nov. 1 and runs through Dec. 15, with authorities using a Saddam Hussein-era database for food rationing to create the initial voter list. When Iraqis receive their monthly ration, they get a sheet of paper listing members of each family.
Heads of families must report any changes or errors on the list.
The U.S. and Iraqi governments are anxious for the elections to be held so that a broadly based, legitimate administration can take power. The current interim government was selected by the Americans and the United Nations.
However, Iraqi officials concede that important as the elections are to the country's future, many Iraqis have more pressing concerns.
"Many think that security, electricity, water, bread and schools for their children are more important than elections," Ayar said. "We have to make them understand that it's the elections that will secure these things for them," he said.
He acknowledged that the remaining weeks were not enough to change long-entrenched attitudes, but added his commission was doing its best to spread the word about the vote.
The commission is focusing on television ads because this is the medium that attracts the most Iraqis, he said. It has also distributed 10 million educational pamphlets, provided literature to non-governmental organizations to hand out in different provinces, and published advertisements in newspapers.
Commission members have also appeared on television shows to try to explain the election. Plans call for the commission to produce a series of programs to be televised closer to the election date, which has not been set.
But the precarious security situation limits such efforts.
"Security is the most important issue. For instance, there has been no election education in Fallujah, Ramadi and some parts of Mosul," Ayar said. "Because what if a criminal comes and blows himself up among a gathering?"
Ayad al-Samarrai, an official of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that despite efforts so far, voter awareness is still very low.
"The elections will probably happen in the Kurdish and Shiite areas, even if with some violations," al-Samarrai said. "But the turnout will be low in the Sunni Arab areas either on principle, or for fear of security violations or because of lack of information and awareness."
It is widely assumed that the Kurds are the most politically aware community in Iraq. Interest in the election is thought to be lowest among Sunni Muslim Arabs, who also form the core of the insurgency.
Even before the collapse of Saddam's regime in 2003, Kurdish areas in northern Iraq enjoyed self-rule under U.S. and British air protection since 1991. The Kurds have well-organized political parties and an elected parliament, all of which make them more politically astute, even if the system has its flaws.
The Kurdish-run region is also safer than the rest of the country. The heads of the two main Kurdish parties are already holding campaigning meetings with tribal leaders in their areas. Posters encouraging voters to cast their ballots are plastered on walls in schools and markets. Kurdish-language television stations also publicize the vote.
Many Kurds were happy to see that the voter registration sheet was written in Kurdish along with Arabic, making it easier for them to understand.
"It'll be a great day when the people get to choose their leadership," said Khorshid Babk from the Kurdish city of Irbil. "Everyone must vote."
The country's Shiite majority, estimated to form about 60 percent of the population, is eagerly awaiting the election, hoping to translate its numbers into political power. A call by the Shiite clergy to participate in the elections means many Shiites, who revere their religious authorities, will vote.
Matters are more complicated in some Sunni Arab areas, marred by violence and calls for boycotting the vote.
Underscoring insurgents' commitment to derailing the vote, gunmen tried to destroy election registration sheets in a food distribution center in the largely Sunni northern city of Mosul, deputy governor Khissrou Gouran said.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group, has called for boycotting elections to protest the attack on Sunni Fallujah. Some Sunnis said they would respond to the call.
"First things first. Security is more important than elections," said Sinan Abdul-Razzaq, a Sunni Arab who said he would boycott the vote in response to the association's call.