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    Polling Places Being Readied in US for Iraqi Expatriate Voters

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    The United States will be among 14 countries around the world in which Iraqi expatriates can cast votes in the January 30 Iraqi election. Special voting places are being set up in five American cities.

    Officials here say nearly 250,000 Iraqis living in the United States will be eligible to vote in the election, and an unprecedented effort is under way to facilitate the casting of ballots.

    Iraqi authorities have tasked the non-governmental International Organization for Migration with arranging for the expatriate voting in the United States, and other countries with large Iraqi communities, including Iraq's immediate neighbors Iran, Syria and Jordan.

    Voting sites are being set up in five American cities seen as hubs for the expatriate community: Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville.

    In the United States, Iraqis will be able to register for the voting between January 17 and 23. While in Iraq itself the polls will only be open January 30, the U.S. voting sites will be open three days, from January 28 through the 30.

    Those seeking to vote in the United States will have to present documentary evidence of eligibility and actually go to the polling sites to cast ballots. There will be no absentee or mail-in votes.

    At a news briefing, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for democracy and human rights Michael Kozak said that from all accounts interest in voting among Iraqis abroad is as high as it is in Iraq itself, and that the extraordinary overseas election mechanism is a reflection of that. "When you look at polling coming out of Iraq, 84 per cent of Iraqis say they intend to vote," he said. "And this is not, you know, with somebody twisting their arms. As I mentioned earlier, the initial plan was not to have overseas voting, and it was the Iraqis themselves that pushed the Iraqi Elections Commission into making provision for it because people trhere are anxious to vote."

    On the broader process, Mr. Kozak said the election can have credibility even if the turnout in Sunni Muslim areas is suppressed by the insurgency and boycott calls from some Sunni factions.

    He said Iraqi authorities are literally "starting from scratch" in holding the country's first non-rigged election in decades, and the test is whether the process can be reasonably fair and corruption-free. "At the end of the day, there are going to be all kinds of problems that pop up," he said. "But you know can you look at it and say this was something where people were able to vote freely, they were able to debate freely, and they weren't having their votes discounted through fraud or having their people kicked off the ballot or something like that."

    Mr. Kozak rejected the notion that the election system, in which voters will choose among national party slates of candidates rather than picking delegates from geographical districts, will further marginalize Sunnis.

    He said many parties are fielding multi-ethnic slates and encouraging the Sunni vote. He said that after the election for an interim national assembly, there will be no limits on the number of Sunnis who can be in the government or take part in the drafting of a new constitution.

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