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Iraqi Officials Cite Rise Of Interest in Elections

In Final Week, Many Act to Ensure Registration

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page A12

BAGHDAD, Jan. 1 -- The number of Iraqis making sure they are properly registered to vote has surged dramatically, officials said Saturday, calling the rise evidence of enthusiasm for the Jan. 30 elections despite continuing security concerns that have blocked the process in two provinces.

After a slow start to the six-week registration process that began Nov. 1, the number of voters making corrections to official voter lists more than doubled in the final week, according to a final tally quoted by election officials Saturday.

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Officials said more than 2.1 million people went to local election offices to assure that eligible members of their households could vote. About 1.2 million forms were submitted to add names to the voter lists, an involved process that requires providing proof of identification and residence.

"That's a definite marker of voter interest," said an expert with the Independent Election Commission of Iraq who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Because Iraqis do not have to take any steps to register to vote -- food rationing accounts serve as voter rolls -- requests for corrections are essentially the only gauge of voter involvement in the registration process for the Jan. 30 election.

"This is a very good indicator," said Hussein Hindawi, who heads the election office. "We are very optimistic."

The nationwide tally of corrections leaves out two predominantly Sunni Muslim provinces where insurgents have prevented the interim government and U.S. military forces from establishing control. In Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, and Anbar province, where Fallujah and Ramadi are located, voters will be allowed to establish their credentials on election day, officials said.

Both provinces remain relative strongholds for insurgents, who mount daily attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. A U.S. Marine was killed Friday in Anbar, the military announced, and insurgents mounted an attack on a police station in Mosul, the 11th such assault repelled by Iraqi and U.S. forces since the police force in the city collapsed Nov. 10. Also, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad on Saturday morning, the military said.

And in another attack aimed at intimidating Iraqis involved with the interim government, police said the president of Baqubah's city council, Nawfal Abdul Hussein, was killed when three armed men walked into his soft drink shop and began firing. Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, is the capital of Diyala province.

In such Sunni provinces where insurgents remain active, the level of voter preparation will remain unknown until officials break down the nationwide tally by province, which could take several more days. But in a poll for the International Republican Institute, more than 40 percent of residents surveyed in Sunni areas said they did not intend to vote.

In the poll, conducted in late October and early November, more than a quarter of Sunnis surveyed responded with the most adamant option: "Not intend at all." Only 20 percent said they "strongly intend" to vote.

Among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and ethnic Kurds, more than 90 percent strongly intended to vote, according to the survey. Most Kurds follow Islam's Sunni branch but identify themselves by their ethnicity.

Hindawi, the election chief, said anecdotal evidence indicated that overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish areas produced much of the late surge in registration corrections. For example, the election office in Karbala, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, was forced to hire extra workers to accommodate the late rush, he said.

Election officials insist that enthusiasm is also evident in Sunni areas. But concerns persist that the new constitution will be framed by a parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds, at the expense of Sunnis.

The prospect of such an outcome brought a flurry of reports that U.S. policymakers might coax Iraqi officials to set aside additional seats in the new parliament for Sunni representatives. The idea, however, brought a torrent of criticism from Shiite leaders.

"America wants to appoint another Governing Council," said Ali Smeisim, a spokesman for Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose militia fought U.S. troops for six months last year. The Governing Council, which dissolved with the naming of an interim administration in June, was widely regarded as a puppet of the United States.

"If the Americans do this, that means the terrorists will announce their victory," said an official close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the paramount Shiite leader in Iraq.

Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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