By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2005 1:30:20 PM ET 2005-03-17T18:30:20

The most profound statement about the security and viability of Iraq’s coming elections wasn’t a statement at all. It was a policy decision to keep independent election monitors out of the country for safety reasons.

That decision was made last month by a new group of international election experts known as the International Mission for Iraqi Elections. The group, formed after meetings headed by Canadian election officials, said it would oversee efforts to register Iraqi voters living outside the country and work with Iraqi national election staff. 

The meeting was held only after the United Nations failed to get other nations to commit to sending observers. When the other nation's weren't forthcoming, U.N. chief Kofi Annan imposed a ceiling of 35 agency staffers to help with the Iraqi elections, citing security concerns.

The election experts ruled out sending teams of monitors to oversee the actual election, said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada’s chief electoral officer.  Instead the group will likely monitor events and receive updates throughout the process from locations inside Jordan.

“We’re calling this an assessment mission. … It’s not an observer mission,” Kingsley told a news conference last month. Kingsley played down any potential negative effects from not having independent monitors at Iraqi polling places.  “I’ve always said that if I had my druthers, I’d rather be doing this type of thing [instead of] doing the observation itself on polling day,” Kingsley said.  “This way you delve into the very fabric of what an election system is all about.”

But others don’t share Kingsley's outlook.  Leslie Campbell, director of Middle East programs at the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based group working under a government contract to train thousands of Iraqis as election monitors, told The New York Times recently that “if election officials are risking their lives, if politicians and election monitors are risking their lives, then election observers should be there, too.”

Others question whether the turmoil surrounding the run-up to the election will produce a credible outcome. 

“It’s pretty hard to imagine that this will be an election that will bring about what [the United States and Iraqi’s] want, which is the legitimacy of a democratic election,” said Kenneth Hurwitz, senior associate with the U.S. Law and Security Program for Human Rights. “I don’t see how it can come out that way when people aren’t secure even going to vote and when large portions of the country simply aren’t going to be voting apparently. The election should be a process that results from the establishment of a democracy; the election itself isn’t the creation of the democracy.”

Fear and loathing in Iraq
Iraq’s indigenous election commission has about 1,000 core employees on its payroll and another 6,000 provincial officials.  However, the group has been plagued by violence against high-profile members.  In one case, 13 members of an organizing team in the troubled Anbar province quit after receiving death threats.

Some 9,000 polling places will be set up throughout the country, according to the Iraqi election commission. Iraqi security forces will patrol the polling places and have primary responsibility for security.

U.S. military forces “will operate from a distance” to “provide quick reaction forces as needed [and] will do whatever is necessary to ensure that this is an effective, safe and secure election,” Maj.-Gen. John Batiste, commander of U.S. forces in Northern Iraq, said last week.

From Batiste’s point of view, there’s no question that violence will erupt on Election Day.

“We will be working with our Iraqi security force partners to make sure that what they're doing makes sense, to make sure that if they need help we are there to mentor and advise,” Batiste said, “and to provide the quick reaction forces that will be necessary to stomp on the insurgent when he raises his ugly head.”

And the pre-election violence is only expected to get worse.   U.S. military officials in Iraq have warned that insurgents may be planning increasingly bloody attacks, according to Air Force Brig.-Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy chief of staff for strategic communications in Iraq. 

“I think a worst case is where they have a series of horrific attacks that cause mass casualties in some spectacular fashion in the days leading up to the elections,” Lessel said.

However, Lessel also noted that the violence is concentrated in a small portion of the country, with four of the country’s 18 provinces being areas of concern.  “In 10 of those 18 provinces, there have been virtually no attacks,” Lessel said during an appearance on a radio talk show last week. 

Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, recently told reporters, “I just can’t guarantee that everyone will be able to go to a poll in total safety.  I cannot put a bubble around every person walking from their home to the polling site.”

And it’s not clear that additional international election observers would be of much use.  “My inclination is to think that to push for more election monitors, in a situation where the circumstances really seem to guarantee that the election cannot be a meaningful national referendum, would kind of be a waste of assets, a wasted risk,” said Hurwitz. 

The expatriate vote
Efforts are being made to pull expatriate Iraqi’s into the election, too.  The International Organization for Migration is setting up polling places in 14 countries, including Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran and the United States.  Worldwide it’s estimated that 1 million Iraqi’s are eligible to vote, according to the State Department.

There are some 240,000 potential Iraqi voters in the United States, the State Department says, and five cities — Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville — will have polling places for Iraqis.

And while Iraqi election officials struggle with life-and-death issues, election officials in Detroit are fighting a whole battle: finding polling sites, staff and balancing the ethnic and religious concerns of the highly fractured Iraqi population there.  John Gattorn, in charge of the Iraqi voting effort in Michigan, at times has had to job interviews in his SUV while in a parking lot. 

“Through all the insanity, everything is on track,” Gattorn told the Detroit Free Press.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Lessel gave an inverted version of that assessment:  “We’re making good progress, but still have a tough fight.”

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