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Iraqi Election Officials Prepare for Worst, Hope for Better


In Iraq, election workers and security forces are bracing for an election on Sunday that many fear could bring bloodshed. Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the polling, and kill anyone who tries to vote. But many people in Shia-dominated southern Iraq are determined to go to the polls regardless of the risk. The Shia see this as a chance to regain control of Iraq after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein and earlier Sunni-led governments.

It is a most unusual rehearsal. Election workers and town leaders in Az Zubayr have set up a mock polling center in a room at the local police station. They are practicing the jobs they will have to do for real on Sunday, in Iraq's first national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Several men and women stand at the door, patting down pretend voters and searching their handbags for weapons.

A man and a woman sit at a long table against the wall. The man has a handwritten list of names in front of him. This is the pretend voter's roll. The woman has a sheet of typing paper, carefully torn into smaller pieces. These are the pretend ballots.

Two cardboard boxes have been emptied of the portable space heaters that came in them and placed on the table in the center of the room. These are the pretend ballot boxes. A man sits next to them with an inkpad. He carefully inspects a pretend voter's fingers for ink, and then holds the man's index finger on the inkpad for a full 15 seconds.

The pretend voter drops a pretend ballot into the pretend ballot box. So far, so good.

Suddenly, one of the fake voters refuses to let his fingers be inspected. He lunges for the ballot box, and pulls out a gun. While the poll workers are distracted, another man is trying to steal ballots off the table.

The election workers spring into action. One man secures the ballot boxes. Another protects the ballots. Four more wrestle the man with the gun out the door.

Election officials are trying to be prepared for the worst, while still hoping things go smoothly in a region that has been largely spared the violence that has plagued central Iraq.

The dry run in the police station is just part of the preparations in Az Zubayr. Down the street, in a schoolhouse that will be used as a polling station, the man in charge is briefing his workers on their mission.

Khalid Hamood Niama tells the poll workers they must not show favor for any political group. He says their credibility and impartiality is the key to the election's success.

Election workers all over Iraq are getting ready for Sunday, when voters will choose a 275-member interim national assembly, which will, in turn, write the country's new constitution. The people who have agreed to work at the polling centers will be risking their lives. So will the people who show up to vote.

Several insurgent groups have warned that they will kill anyone who goes near a polling station on Sunday. Jordanian militant and al-Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has declared war on what he calls "the evil principle of democracy."

A lot of people in central Iraq say they will probably not vote, even though they would like to. The risk is just too great.

But here in southern Iraq, many people are eagerly awaiting election day. They say they intend to vote no matter what the risk. In Iraq's second city of Basra, about 20 kilometers from Az Zubayr, a man wearing traditional tribal robes puts it bluntly.

He says, "Every single one of us should vote, even if we face terrorist acts. If someone faces a terrorist threat, he has to tell his family, 'If I die, you go vote.'"

Back in Az Zubayr, local officials believe the election will be a success despite the very real threat of violence. Part of their optimism comes from experience. Back in June, Az Zubayr became the first town in Iraq to elect its town council.

Town council chairman Shukri Ibrahim Almousawi says holding their own local election has given the townspeople a little more confidence in the democratic process.

He says, "I am very sure that the national election will be successful because the people in Az Zubayr have experience with the town council election."

The town council election was far from perfect. Voter turnout was only around 15 percent. There are only two Sunni Muslims on the 36-member council, even though roughly two-thirds of the town's population is Sunni.

But people who know the town well say the town council election, flawed as it was, still gave Az Zubayr an important psychological boost. Several other Iraqi towns have held council elections since then. The people of Az Zubayr might not have held a perfect election, but they were the first in Iraq to actually choose their own local leaders through the ballot box. And many of them are looking forward to doing that again on the national level.