Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Observers absent from Iraq election

SECURITY With corruption and political intrigue abounding, Iraqi election officials admit discomfort in the lack of foreign observers in the dangerous Iraqi elections

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Amman, Jordan

An Iraqi working with the International Organization for Migration which organized the overseas balloting in 14 countries, including Syria, for the Iraqi elections carries a ballot box after sealing it, as the out-of-country vote ended on Sunday in Damascus, after three days of balloting.

PHOTO: AP

Among the many ways that security concerns affected Iraq's elections on Sunday, one of the most controversial was that foreign observers played almost no direct role in monitoring the balloting.

Instead, thousands of hastily trained Iraqis fanned out to polling places to observe the vote, while a small team of 129 foreign observers worked only within the heavily guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad.

That decision, largely made in December because of heavy attacks aimed at disrupting the election, broke with increasingly observed election practice in conflict zones, where international officials have played crucial roles in resolving conflicts.

Still, after the close of balloting on Sunday, a group of electoral officials from 11 nations who were brought in to provide independent oversight gave their seal of approval to the process, and they commended the Iraqis' work.

The oversight group, the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, said that primary monitoring of polling places was provided by more than 50,000 Iraqis who had been trained by groups like the National Democratic Institute and the EU's Election Support Project.

For some areas within the Green Zone, 129 foreign observers did monitor the polling.

The chairman of the election group's steering committee, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who is Canada's chief electoral officer, stressed that Iraqi parties who had complaints would be heard by his group and had further avenues for appeal if they were still unsatisfied.

As of Sunday, no such complaints had been reported. With the counting process in full swing, there was little official assessment abroad of the elections' fairness.

But Carlos Valenzuela, the UN's electoral adviser in Iraq, said he was encouraged by early indications and added that he would feel "elated" if the results yielded so far were confirmed, Reuters reported.

Kingley's group recommended further improvements in upcoming elections, including greater transparency in financial contributions and expenditures, improvements to the voter registration process, and a review of the criteria for candidate eligibility.

With corruption rife and political intrigue abounding in the country, even Iraqi election officials have admitted their discomfort in relying solely on indigenous observers.

"Hopefully it's the last time anyone will try that," admitted one high-level election official.

In part, foreign observers provide legitimacy to local observers, while also providing weight once problems do arise.

In Afghanistan, for example, when some candidates contested the elections when the indelible ink meant to prevent voters from double voting appeared to rub off, foreign observers were critical to diffusing the potential standoff.

In Ukraine, too, says Domenico Tuccinardi, who led training of some of the Iraqi observers, foreign observers were critical to helping raise doubts about an initial election.

Without that extra help in polling place monitoring, Kingsley said, guiding early parts of the process proved critical, including registration and voter outreach.

Ultimately, he said, registration for the election went better than expected, thanks in large part to Tuccinardi's suggestion of using the rolls for Iraq's food rationing system as a sort of makeshift census to guide the effort.

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