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World Awaits Iraq Election with Hope, Doubt


Political leaders and opinion makers around the world are awaiting the outcome of Sunday's election in Iraq with a mixture of hope and doubt about whether the vote can help the country turn the corner from a violence-torn society to a democratic one.

There is an air of both expectation and skepticism about the Iraq election in the capitals of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

There are concerns that turnout may be low for the first free and democratic election in decades in Iraq, with Islamic militants vowing to sabotage the vote. Fewer than one-quarter of the expatriate Iraqis eligible to vote have met the registration deadline.

The director of the Middle East program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, Rosemary Hollis, says the turnout in Iraq's strife-torn Sunni region will be a key factor.

"There are a lot of questions about how successful will the elections be if the Sunni heartland of Iraq is unrepresented in the resulting assembly, or underrepresented," said Ms. Hollis. "And going into constitution drafting, what are the consequences of this for holding Iraq together, for ending the insurgency and so on."

Ms. Hollis says there is a wait-and-see attitude toward the elections among government leaders in France and Germany, who were the chief European opponents to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"I have heard repeatedly from the continental Europeans that it is in their interest that Iraq works, that Iraq does not descend into civil war," she said. "However, their policy positions vis-à-vis using NATO in Iraq, using the U.N. in Iraq, or sending their own personnel to be active on the ground in Iraq, their policy positions indicate they lack confidence in the process underway in Iraq and its viability and its effectiveness to end the insurgency."

At the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, senior research fellow Michael Emerson says that in the longer term, a successful transition to democracy in Iraq, combined with a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, could help heal the wounds in Washington's relations with Paris and Berlin.

"It will not be healed until the Iraq business in some way becomes benign from a trans-Atlantic point of view and that could happen, and secondly, until there is indeed something decisive on Israel-Palestine, which of course is difficult to predict," said Mr. Emerson.

There is deep skepticism across much of the Arab world that the elections will deliver peace and democracy, given the militancy and the presence of the U.S.-led multi-national military force. Hassan Nafae is the head of the political science department at Cairo University.

"The election under occupation is not a real election. It is an election under emergency circumstances," said Mr. Nafae. "This will not lead to a real democracy in Iraq."

The Muslim community in (eastern) Asia is also closely watching the Iraq election. Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, head of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, says Iraqis should seize the opportunity to vote.

In an interview with the French news agency, Mr. Badawi said he is worried about the potential for violence, but believes the election marks what he describes as "the beginning of a new Iraq."

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Iraqi exiles who have signed up to vote at registration centers in 14 countries around the world. One of them, Ahmed Shames, spoke with VOA at a voter registration site in London.

"I have been dreaming about this day since my teens, and now I am very, very happy, and very proud that I am actually part of the effort that will hopefully make this election a successful process for Iraq and a model for the Middle East and the Islamic world," said Mr. Shames.

Iraqis cast absentee ballots at the overseas voting centers between Friday and Sunday, and results of the absentee voting are due to be released in Amman, Jordan, next week.