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U.S. Nervously Awaits Iraqi Elections

Administration Works to Ease Fears of Likely Shiite Victory's Impact on Region

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A15

In the run-up to Iraq's elections, the State Department's spokesman this week ticked off the final markers of progress: 130 planeloads of voting materials had landed in Iraq, including 90,000 ballot boxes and 60 million ballots -- a flurry of up to 15 flights a day to Iraqi airfields. In a last-minute American role, officials said, the U.S. military will assist today in distributing the equipment to polling stations.

To ease a bad case of nerves spreading among Iraq's neighbors, the Bush administration has also scrambled in recent days to assuage alarm about the potential consequences of -- and spillover from -- Iraq's elections on the region, U.S. officials said.


U.S. Army soldiers visit Iraqi troops and police officers guarding a polling center in Mosul, Iraq. Insurgents have attacked polling centers in at least six major Iraqi cities as the country prepares for tomorrow's elections. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)



But as tomorrow's voting begins, the Bush administration can do little more than hold its breath and wait as Iraqis decide whether to participate in the historic balloting. The elections are the biggest test yet for the costly and complex U.S. military intervention in Iraq aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein almost two years ago, U.S. officials acknowledged.

President Bush yesterday declared the process a success simply because the elections will go ahead despite the escalating attacks by insurgents and the myriad political pressures to delay the vote.

"Freedom is on the march, and the world is better for it," Bush said at the formal swearing-in of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush lauded Iraqis for their courage in refusing "to surrender their future to these killers."

The president also predicted that Iraq's fledgling democracy will become "a powerful example to reformers throughout the entire Middle East."

"On Sunday, the Iraqi people will be joining millions in other parts of the world who now decide their future through free votes," Bush told the foreign diplomatic corps at Rice's swearing-in.

Based on the most recent U.S. polling, the administration is cautiously optimistic about the turnout, which may prove to be the main barometer of the elections, since no international monitoring group will be deployed at polling stations to assess whether the voting is free and fair. The U.S. survey, conducted this month, shows that 50 to 60 percent of Iraqis are "very likely" or "intend" to vote in most areas, according to a senior State Department official.

More than 60 percent showed interest in voting in northern Kurdish areas and major southern Shiite cities such as Basra, Najaf, Karbala and Hilla. In hot spots in the volatile Sunni triangle, such as Tikrit and Baqubah, the numbers drop to about a third of eligible voters, the official said.

These figures are down about 20 percent from the previous poll, conducted late last year. But U.S. officials say any turnout that gets more than half of Iraq's 14 million voters to the polls will be enough for the declaration of a major success -- and will be comparable to recent turnouts in U.S. presidential elections.

U.S. hopes for respectable numbers got a boost yesterday from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who issued a call for all Iraqis to vote even if they oppose the U.S. invasion and the subsequent occupation.

"Elections are the best way to determine any country's future. Please exercise your democratic rights on Sunday," Annan said in a message released by the United Nations. "Whatever your feelings about how the country reached this point, this election offers an opportunity to move away from violence and uncertainty toward peace and representative government."

U.S. analysts cautioned that a healthy turnout does not mean Iraqis endorse the U.S. policy on Iraq. "The election is a validation of the removal of Saddam Hussein, but it should not be seen as a sign of approval of the U.S. presence there now," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at National Defense University.

The administration has worked hard to reassure Iraq's neighbors and to promote the benefits of the elections. The reasons vary widely from nation to nation, but Arabs, Turks, Iranians and others share unsettling fears about how the vote tomorrow will alter the region's traditional balance of power and economic relationships, according to U.S. officials and Middle East analysts.


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