The UN has launched a US$90 million operation to reach four million Iraqi expatriates \nA last-minute push to prepare millions of Iraqis living overseas to vote in the critical elections in their homeland this month has been launched by the UN. \nWith only four weeks until the poll, there are still no clear estimates of how many expatriate Iraqis might be eligible to vote, though analysts agree that they could determine its outcome. Around 250,000 Iraqis live in Britain -- one of the biggest expatriate communities -- with up to four million spread elsewhere around the world. \nIn one of the biggest exercises of its type, costing around US$90 million, tens of thousands of volunteers in 15 countries are working frantically to register Iraqis who are aged over 18. \nIn Britain, three registration centers will be set up next month in preparation for polling on 30 January. \nThe booths will be manned by Iraqis living in the UK, though security will be in the hands of local police. Around 600 Iraqi exiles in Britain will be trained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN body mandated by the Iraqi electoral commission to conduct the poll. \n"There is a huge amount of enthusiasm," said Sarah Fradgley, an IOM spokesperson in London. "Some people have complained there are only three centers, but we have pointed out that, if they were living in Tokyo, they would have to go to Los Angeles." \nKasim Murthada, chairman of the Iraqi Community Council in Wales, is one of the many Iraqis in the UK consulted by the IOM about arrangements for the poll. "The elections are vital for a united, human, democratic and civilized Iraq," said Murthada, who has lived in Swansea since 1978. "I am very excited." \nThe British vote is expected to follow patterns in Iraq, where the Shia Muslims, who comprise 60 per cent of the population, are expected to dominate. Most expatriate Iraqis are Shia or from the Kurdish minority. Both groups suffered disproportionately under Saddam Hussein, who favoured Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority. \nAhmed Shames, who runs an Iraqi pro-democracy network, said that Sunni Iraqis in Britain were generally less enthusiastic about voting. "Their leadership in Iraq is still suspicious of the election," he said. "The leaders of the Shias have told them all to vote." \nPreparations are also under way in 14 other countries with substantial Iraqi communities. Egypt was a late addition to a list drawn up in the autumn. From Jordan, a three-minute public service announcement is being aired on pan-Arab satellite networks and state-run local radio and television. Voter education material is being published in international Arabic newspapers. \nUN officials say that it will cost about US$90 a head for the expatriates to register and vote, compared with US$24 for each voter in Iraq. \nThe Iraqi electoral commission decided to allow out-of-country voting despite opposition from the UN team, which argued that it would be very costly, posed logistical problems and might be prone to fraud. However, political parties in Iraq put pressure on the commission to allow it. \n"There will be allegations, fraud and all that," said the UN official organizing the poll. "But though the commission felt that was a problem ... they felt that the integrity of the process will also be questioned if out-of-country voting was not taken." \nIn Manchester, England, Iraqis were enthusiastic. Diyari Askander, who came to Britain 14 years ago from Suleymaniya in northern Iraq, said that he wanted a peaceful election and a government which "understands human rights and will be fair to the Iraqi people." \n"Of course people in Manchester will come and vote,' he added. 'It doesn't matter what religious backgrounds they come from, they all want to see the situation improve. At the moment there are thousands of people suffering every week." \nHow the election will work \nWhat will the Iraqis be voting for? \nThey will be electing a 275-member interim national assembly, which will select a government and draft a constitution. \nHow will the poll be organized? \nLargely due to the difficult security situation, Iraq will be considered as a single electoral entity. It will not be divided into wards, states or other units. The number of seats in the assembly will be apportioned according to proportional representation. The more votes a party gets, the more seats it will win. Of those seats, 25 percent must be filled by women. The system allows exiles to vote without having to return to their "homes" and guarantees the right of smaller parties to compete. \nIsn't that a problem in areas with poor security? \nYes. Areas where security is particularly bad -- such as the Sunni Triangle -- are likely to see much higher levels of intimidation on polling day than the more stable Shia and Kurdish areas. \nWhy not postpone the vote until there is better security? \nIraqis disagree over postponement. The Shia parties, who stand to benefit most from a January poll when Sunnis are struggling to get out the vote, will brook no delay. Sunni politicians are keen to postpone. \nWho will monitor the fairness of the elections? \nVoters will be marked with indelible ink after casting their ballot. However it is likely that attacks and intimidation will take place. International election monitors will not be in Iraq, but in Jordan. \nWho will win? \nThe United Iraqi Alliance list has been put together in consultation with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric. \nAlthough its 228 candidates are dominated by Shias, it has been careful to include Christians, Turkomen, Sunnis and Kurds. It does not include the followers of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Fatwas have been issued by the Shia community encouraging Shias to vote, so there will be a significant Shia majority.
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