Mon, Jan 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Iraq poll may depend on the overseas vote

The UN has launched a US$90 million operation to get up to four million Iraqi expatriates to vote in this month's elections

By Jason Burke and Tariq Panja  /  THE OBSERVER , London

The UN has launched a US$90 million operation to reach four million Iraqi expatriates

A 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.

With 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.

In 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.

In Britain, three registration centers will be set up next month in preparation for polling on 30 January.

The 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.

"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."

Kasim 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."

The 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.

Ahmed 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."

Preparations 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.

UN 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.

The 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.

"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."

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