Iraqi officials perhaps picked the wrong place for a civics lesson on U.S. elections. During a visit to Walt Disney's Pleasure Island in Orlando last week, a four-man delegation hosted by the State Department discovered Floridians in the crowd had as many questions as answers about pulling off legitimate elections.
With voter registration throughout Iraq scheduled to begin Nov. 1 ahead of a nationwide election in January, Iraq's delegates came away from their Florida encounter sure only that they have more cause for preelection jitters than their American voters. "The terrorists will definitely try to stop the wheels of democracy," said Sheik Mohammed Baqer al Suhail, chairman of the Baghdad City Council, speaking through an interpreter to about 100 people at the Florida theme park.
Just as international observers descended on Florida to monitor its balloting, the Iraqis ended a two-week U.S. tour with less obtrusive motives. They wanted to see close-hand the final days of campaigning. They also came to visit the home of Florida National Guard 124th Infantry soldiers, who patrolled the Baghdad neighborhood of Omar al Rahmani, chairman of the Baghdad Provincial Council and a member of the delegation.
Controversy surrounding U.S. elections notwithstanding, Mr. Rahmani told the Orlando Sentinel that "America's special gift" had given him hope. "Like Iraq, here in America you have different [ethnic groups], different languages, different religions . . . and yet they live here in peace."
Mr. Rahmani knows better than to expect peaceful elections in his homeland. In July he barely escaped when gunmen attacked his car in Baghdad. Insurgents, headlined by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have stepped up efforts to disrupt preparations for a January vote-and they are targeting prominent Iraqis pledged to defend it.
Mr. Zarqawi's terror organization, which announced formal allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on Oct. 20, is claiming responsibility for some of the worst killings and kidnappings, including the Oct. 23 massacre of 49 new Iraqi soldiers and three drivers as they traveled home, unarmed, from a training course at a U.S. base near the Iranian border.
More than 560 people have been killed and 1,200 wounded in 92 suicide attacks in the four months between June and September, according to Iraqi government figures. Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has warned that worse may come. "Our enemies have realized that it would be a big blow to them if Iraq was stable and was on the right path, so they will escalate terror and criminal acts," he said.
The officials who visited the United States, however, signaled the determination of Iraq's new leadership-and its postwar accomplishments to date. Each of the four won office under a local election timetable set by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraq's Governing Council. Abdul Rahman Mustafa, governor of Kirkuk and the delegation's third member, returned Kurdish control to his region following decades of forced Arabization by Saddam Hussein's regime when he was elected in May 2003. An independent lawyer, he was elected under the joint sponsorship of two Kurdish parties who once took up arms against each other. The fourth delegate, Qader Hama Jan Azziz, was similarly elected mayor of Sulaymaniyah.
Against the backdrop of continuing violence, these and other locally elected officials are critical to pulling off a national election. Provincial governments have pledged to enable registration of Iraq's estimated 12 million voters over coming weeks in time for the scheduled poll Jan. 31.
One major hurdle was crossed last week, the opening of an electoral office in Fallujah, even as U.S. and British forces stepped up plans for an assault on Islamic radicals in the city. While violence is confined to areas encompassing only about one-fourth of Iraq, officials insist no enclaves will be left out. "If there is no election in some cities, there will be no election at all," Iraqi electoral commission spokesman Farid Ayar announced this summer. "Our goal is to make the Iraqi people understand freedom."
Registration at over 500 sites may require up to 6,000 Iraqi workers. For the elections, experts say Iraq will have 30,000 polling stations. If four people man each site, that means a total of 120,000 workers. At the moment, the UN mission in Iraq-which sought and received from the United States authority to oversee elections-numbers 35. Security for UN personnel is a thorny issue after insurgents bombed UN headquarters in Baghdad last year, killing 23, including special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello.
But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari last month charged the UN with deliberately understaffing the effort, pointing out that the world body had in Iraq only a fraction of the election officials it employed during elections in tiny East Timor. Two UN unions-representing 60,000 employees-have threatened to block sending more personnel to Iraq, citing security risks. U.S. officials suspect the tepid support may have as much to do with UN anti-Bush sentiment as with security.
Whatever the reason, the reduced UN presence means stepped-up participation by Iraq's interim government-something Baghdad leaders wanted all along.
Once underway, voters will choose candidates for a 275-member transitional National Assembly, for a regional assembly in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, and for governing councils in each of 18 provinces. This follows the procedures outlined in the interim constitution signed in March by the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council and former U.S. administrator Paul Bremer.
Organizers have bowed to security concerns in choosing proportional representation. All voters will elect the entire legislature by political party. The government will award seats according to the percentage of national vote received. Parties must fill the seats with legislators chosen from an internal party list. The procedure should lessen both intimidation and targeting of candidates by insurgents.
Structuring the elections by party, however, has led to an explosion of political activism. As many as 380 political parties have been identified. Any can register for the ballot with just 500 signatures.
The lead parties are the Iraqi National Accord, led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; the Iraqi National Congress, led by a former U.S. favorite, Ahmad Chalabi; two Shiite Muslim religious parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. All have representatives in the current interim government.
Once elected, a transitional national assembly will choose a president and two deputy presidents from among its own members. This "presidency council" will appoint a prime minister and other government ministers. The National Assembly will be responsible for drafting a constitution by Aug. 15, 2005, and will be able to pass laws.
Holding the timetable under daily terror threats would seem impossible-except that Iraq's interim authorities already have kept every significant deadline since their liberation. By now, the leadership is sober enough to see the elections not as an endpoint but as one more hurdle on the road to getting back their country.