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Iraq Preparing for Elections Despite Problems    - 2004-09-30

Despite the rising level of violence in Iraq, the country's election officials are actively recruiting and training Iraqis to help conduct the country's first free election in almost a half century. Government officials say they fully intend to hold an open election by the end of January, as planned. And, even though many Iraqis say they aren't sure the election will produce legitimate results, there is also a belief that the election must be held in order to start Iraq on the path of democracy.

Not a day goes by in Iraq that police vehicles and ambulances don't speed toward the scenes of militant bombings or shootings. In fact, the insurgency is growing more intense, more violent and more deadly.

According to Iraqi officials, the terrorists have but one goal - to disrupt the country's push toward democracy, including free and open elections scheduled for January.

But even with no end in sight to the violence, officials here are promising the election will be held as scheduled.

The chairman of Iraq's Election Commission is Houssain Hindawi.

"There will be lots of problems," he said. "But, we have to go ahead. We have no other choice. The people want to change. Iraqi people want the elections, want the democracy. They think without this election there will be no legitimacy for anybody. There will be a lot of problems, of course, but it is not really big problems."

Voters will be electing candidates for what will become a 275-seat Iraqi Assembly. But the publisher of al-Sabah Iraq's second-largest newspaper, says he's not convinced Iraqis will get a fair chance to elect the candidates of their choice. The publisher, Ismail Zier, says the established political parties will decide who will seek office, and that will limit the scope of possible outcomes.

"The big parties already declared that they will work together in the same way they did in the national conference one month ago," said Ismail Zier. "And, it means that they will close the ground on any newcomers, any individuals, any opposition, any chance to create some kind of realistic or constructive or non-constructive opposition."

But, Mr. Zier says even if the elections are defective, they must take place as scheduled. The newspaper publisher and member of the former Governing Council says the elections will help pave the way for what he calls "the beginnings of a legitimate government in Iraq."

Mr. Zier says despite his misgivings about the election process, he intends to urge Iraqis to go to the polls.

And, despite the violence, large numbers of Iraqis have been indicating they plan to vote in January. Their biggest complaint is that they don't yet know who any of the candidates will be. Iyad al-Garawi owns a furniture store in Baghdad.

Mr. al-Garawi says he hasn't seen any information about the election and doesn't know who the candidates will be, except possibly former members of the Governing Council, which was made up mostly of Iraqis who had fled the country when it was ruled by Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad University chemistry professor Hassan Hadi, also wants to know who the candidate will be. He says he fully intends to vote, but he will not be casting his ballot for any candidate who has been living outside of the country.

"The member must live with us in Iraq, in the hard time with us," said Hassan Hadi. "This person cannot come from out of Iraq. 'Live with us' means in all the hard and nice [times], if there were [any] nice times in the last period in Iraq."

Iraqis will only have about three months to learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. That's because the Election Commission says it won't be until late October that people will be able to officially declare their candidacies. Even then, no one expects to see public campaigns because of the level of violence in Iraq. That's why the director of Assiyrian Television in Baghdad, Sammid Sahaff, says Iraqi media must accept full responsibility for informing the voters about the candidates.

Mr. Sahaff says Iraq's media must play a critical role in the democratic process in order to explain to the people the importance of the elections and who the candidates are. Right now, he says the Iraqi media are more important than any other segment of society because they must teach and inform the people about what's going on.

Mr. Sahaff says while the media will certainly work to point out any deficiencies in the election process, it should also work to educate the public about the importance of the elections and their role in bringing real democracy to Iraq.

But the television executive is worried. He says it seems illogical to think that all Iraqis will get a fair chance to vote with violence and militancy still present in several cities, including Fallujah, Najaf and even parts of Baghdad.

While many say they will defy the militants and go to vote, many others, including 30-year-old tailor Ahmed Gamal, say they will not risk their lives to vote.

Mr. Gamal says he definitely won't be voting unless the security situation improves. And in his view the election won't represent true democracy unless everyone gets a fair chance to cast their ballots.

Iraqi officials are promising that the majority of citizens will get a chance to vote. They acknowledge that Iraq's first free democratic election in more than 45 years won't be perfect, but they say the election must and will be held as scheduled.