Global Policy Forum

Iraqi Faults UN on Lack of Staff to Aid in Voting


By Dexter Filkins and Warren Hoge

New York Times
October 20, 2004

The United Nations has not sent enough election workers to help monitor pivotal elections scheduled for January, Iraq's foreign minister said here on Wednesday. Although Iraqi leaders and the United States are pushing for elections to be held as planned, signs of open campaigning are few, with preparations for the vote clouded by threats of boycotts and continuing violence in parts of Iraq. "We feel very disappointed that the participation of the U.N. employees is not up to the required level and there is a limited number of officials, and we are at the end of October," said the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

A few hours later in New York, the United Nations announced that 130 Fijian soldiers would go to Baghdad to replace the troops protecting the small United Nations contingent now in place. The United Nations portrayed the move as possibly allowing it to increase its presence in Iraq but made no commitment to do so. Mr. Zebari noted that 35 United Nations workers had been dispatched to help monitor Iraq's elections, far fewer than the 300 sent to East Timor for a referendum there in 1999 amid conflict. "Judging by the size of the process in Iraq and its complexity, we definitely need a larger U.N. presence in Iraq, at least to establish confidence in the electoral process," Mr. Zebari said.

Secretary General Kofi Annan has been unable to persuade many countries to contribute to a planned 4,000-member force to protect United Nations officials and workers. "We have tried to raise a brigade to protect the U.N., but we haven't done very well," Mr. Annan said Tuesday at a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in London. "And it's the same governments who are asking me to send in my civilian staff who are not going to give any troops to protect them," Mr. Annan said. He pulled all international workers out of Baghdad a year ago after the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in August 2003 that killed 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

In August, Mr. Annan sent a small group back to Baghdad to help plan the elections, but - saying he was acting on the advice of the United Nations security coordinator - he imposed a limit of 35 people. Of the 35, only 5 are specialists from the electoral assistance unit. The activities of the seven-member Iraqi election commission and the Iraqi volunteers have appeared to be behind the schedule established by the head of the electoral assistance division, Carina Perelli.

Three months before the elections, political activity is largely invisible in Iraq. Intense negotiations have been unfolding among political parties to form coalitions and present voters with unified "lists" of candidates. Party leaders are meeting privately with potential candidates, with some saying they are preparing to field the maximum 275 candidates for the national assembly. But the scene in the capital is marked by an absence of campaigning and public appearances. The big political parties, like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have been mostly inert. Only a handful of campaign signs have been spotted around the capital, and the Independent Iraqi Election Commission has done little to announce its presence, though voter registration is set to begin Nov. 1.

Some party leaders say they are waiting for the security situation to improve before they meet with allies, hold public meetings and campaign openly. Some say that they have long lists of candidates, from places as ridden by turmoil as Falluja, who are ready to stand for office. The bargaining and horse-trading, they say, has already begun, but behind doors. "We have many people who are willing to run, from Baghdad, Falluja, Samarra, Tikrit, Mosul," said Saad Abdul Razak, of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, a largely Sunni Arab party. "A lot of the tribal leaders, if you promise them something - projects, positions - they will vote for you."

Many politicians seem to be waiting for the American-led military offensive to retake some of the areas lost to insurgents, like Falluja and Ramadi. The Americans and the Iraqi government have said they want to take control of those areas to allow ordinary Iraqis to feel secure enough to vote. But a number of Iraqi politicians say the military operations are having the opposite effect, driving political activity indoors and alienating Iraqis caught in the crossfire. "If you try to use force to make people have elections, it will fail," said Kais al-Zawi, a leader in the Socialist Arab Movement.

While United Nations officials have been talking to countries about contributing to the larger force that would permit the organization to re-establish a strong presence, the United States has taken the lead in trying to sign up participants. The country that appears closest to joining is Georgia. "That whole process is looking good, and we're quite optimistic that Georgian troops will be going in and doing middle ring security," said a senior American official. She estimated their number at several hundred and said their responsibility would be providing protection for convoys and people like electoral registrars who would be traveling out of the Green Zone and into the country. As for any additional contributors, she said, "We have talked to a lot of countries, and we are still talking to them. It is a very substantial list, but the talks with the Georgians are by far the most advanced."

Ms. Perelli, who led the United Nations election effort in East Timor, has declined recent requests to discuss the Iraq election effort. In an earlier briefing, she said that there would be 30,000 polling places across Iraq's 18 provinces and estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqis would have to be employed as election workers and poll watchers. While Mr. Annan has been accused of not sending people back soon enough, he has been under contrary pressure from United Nations staff members, many of whom were critical of his decision in 2003 to let Mr. Vieira de Mello and his team go to Baghdad without adequate security. Two organizations representing more than 60,000 United Nations employees urged him this month to pull all workers out of Iraq because of the risk to their safety. They said that in the current climate in Iraq, the United Nations was "a direct target, one that is particularly prone to attacks by ruthless extremist terrorist factions."

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