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Iraqi Officials: January Elections Must Not Be Delayed

Officials in Iraq's interim government say elections scheduled for next January must not be delayed, despite the continuing violence in some parts of the country. Other Iraqi specialists say the bloodshed in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq will make it difficult to hold normal elections in places that have been frequent combat zones.

The nationwide election scheduled for January 30 will select a 275 member National Assembly.

That group will name a new government and oversee the writing of an Iraqi constitution.

On a recent visit to Washington, Iraq's Minister of Public Works, Nesreen Berwari, said the elections must be held on time.

"The government is committed to holding election as scheduled in late January. The Iraqi public is very much committed, and willing, and available, and ready to participate in elections. Only through an election [will] Iraq continue its march toward democracy," she said.

Mrs. Berwari says most areas of Iraq are stable enough to hold normal elections, but she says there are pockets of instability where government security forces and troops in the U.S.-led coalition are having trouble completely defeating insurgents.

"You have to understand that it is difficult for the Iraqi government to control security by its own when the enemies are coming from surrounding countries, when the enemies are well-funded and when the enemy wants to do exactly this, to stop the election and to kill the quest for freedom and democracy," she added.

Hali Jilani is a member of the U.N. Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes U.S. involvement in U.N. programs in Iraq and elsewhere.

Ms. Jilani has spent a great deal of time as a volunteer aide worker helping the local population in the volatile Sunni triangle region north and west of Baghdad.

She says she witnesses active combat in the region on nearly a daily basis, and she feels the ongoing violence will make holding elections there difficult.

"I have to be very honest with you," she said. "Even though I want the elections to be held more than anything else in the world, I am not quite sure they are going to be normal. I am not quite sure they are going to be totally representative. So one has to weigh what one really wants. Are you going to hold elections at the cost of security or are you going to basically say well these are the only elections we can hold under the circumstances? That is the choice for the Iraqi interim government and the powers that be on the American side to make."

While only about 20 percent of Iraqis are Sunni Muslims, they dominated the government under the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Some leading Sunnis have called for the elections to be postponed for up to six-months, arguing that violence in predominantly Sunni areas will make it impossible for the vote to be free and fair.

They also fear the election will give Shi'ite Muslims, who makeup 60 percent of the Iraqi population, an overwhelming grip on power in the nation.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned that a boycott by Sunni Arabs could undermine the legitimacy of a new government.

Phebe Marr, a specialist on Iraq with the U.S. Institute of Peace, says because the Sunnis are in the minority and after many years of dominance are now out of power, they are likely to feel left on the sidelines of the political process.

"It is the Sunni community that seems most fractured, perhaps poorly organized and in a way that is because until recently, in my view, Sunnis did not identify so much as Sunnis and, as many people have said, to some extent many of them are the losers in this change. As a result, because they feel themselves being perhaps marginalized, they do now identify as Sunni," she noted.

Shi'ite Muslim clergy in Iraq have led the push for their followers to vote, arguing that participation in the election is a national and religious duty.

Through a network of prayer leaders, mosques, and schools the clerics are trying to make sure that Shi'ites, who were oppressed during the rule of Saddam Hussein, get out and vote.

More than 200 political entities have registered in Iraq and have applied for certification to participate in the January election.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said the elections in Iraq must be held as scheduled.