A program to issue identity papers to millions of undocumented northerners has begun in Ivory Coast, a step many say is necessary to reconcile the divided nation as elections draw closer. Phillip Wellman reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Officials from the independent electoral commission in Ivory Coast say that all persons who can prove they were born on Ivorian soil can now apply for national identification papers in a public hearing.

Justice Minister Mamadou Kone launched the process in Abidjan, saying there have been many failed attempts to do this. He said he hopes this attempt will be effective, clear and based on consensus.

The relaunch began in the home regions of rebel leader turned prime minister, Guillaume Soro, about 650 kilometers north of Abidjan, and of President Laurent Gbagbo, 300 kilometers west of the commercial capital.

Kone said the rival leaders showed they are behind the process by making these symbolic choices.

The government says about 3.5 million people lack identity cards, usually because they grew up in rural villages and never received birth certificates.

Northern Ivorians say they are entitled to Ivorian nationality and voting papers, a grievance that led to the rebellion in late 2002.

But many supporters of Mr. Gbagbo say only a few really qualify for these rights.

This opposition led to deadly riots last year during the last attempt at identification.

The president of the electoral commission, Robert Beugre-Mambe, says allowing undocumented Ivorians to register for identity papers is the country's first step towards achieving unity. He says it will give Ivorians on both sides of the political divide the chance to register to vote in the country's next presidential election.

Despite repeated peace deals, the world's leading cocoa producer remains split between the government-run south and rebel-held north.

Twice-delayed presidential elections were supposed to be held in 2005, but have been postponed through U.N. resolutions.

Earlier attempts to start identification were also blocked due to technicalities. But Beugre-Mambe says the latest identification scheme is different.

He says unlike previous attempts, this time, both President Gbagbo and Prime Minister Soro are backing the plan. He says both sides of the divided county are now working for peace, which means there should be no complications with the registration.

Similar comments have been made before, only to be derailed by realities on the ground.

The electoral commission says that if the current program proceeds as planned, Ivory Coast should be able to hold presidential elections around October 2008.

West Africa researcher Gilles Yabi of Brussels-based International Crisis Group says although some Ivorians may be discouraged by the wait for elections, it is paramount that the identification process be done thoroughly.

"We can not talk about the end of the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire before we put an end to the question of nationality and identity in the country, so what is important is really to go to the election after solving the question of identity, after distributing ID papers to Ivorians and then, having the right conditions to go to the election," he said.

National identification, disarmament of former fighters, and army re-integration are the three cornerstones of a peace accord between rebels and the Ivorian government signed in March. There have now been symbolic ceremonies and meetings for all three, but no real progress yet.