December 14, 2005

UN quietly confident of smooth Iraq election

By Paul Tait

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The chief United Nations representative
in Iraq said on Wednesday he was pleased with preparations for
Thursday's parliamentary election and was now confident the
poll would go well.

U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi said less than three weeks ago he
was worried that attacks by insurgents and an abuse scandal in
government jails might stop people from voting for Iraq's first
full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But on the eve of the poll Qazi praised the preparations by
the U.N.-backed Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI)
and said he was optimistic that a relatively safe election
would produce reliable results.

"There is a quiet confidence that things are going to go
well," Qazi, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special
representative in Baghdad, told Reuters.

"We are cautious but confident."

He said the United Nations, which has no security role in
Iraq, was taking a "fingers-crossed" approach to security and
hoped the poll would pass with a minimum of attacks.

With the vote taking place against a backdrop of a deep
sectarian divide that has fueled fears of outright civil war,
Qazi had said last month that he wanted to see an improved
security environment.

While attacks have increased in the run-up to the vote,
Iraq was relatively quiet on Wednesday as a security clampdown
which includes nightly curfews, travel restrictions and sealed
borders took effect.

Qazi said he had heard reports, denied by the Interior
Ministry, that a tanker truck stuffed with forged ballot papers
was seized crossing the frontier from Iran. But he did not
believe attempts to influence the vote would work.

"I don't think attempts of that nature would succeed. The
processes are in place to detect that kind of thing quickly."

Asked what he would regard as a successful election, Qazi
said: "A decent turnout, good security with a minimum of
casualties, a reduction in the number of incidents."

He said he hoped it would not take too long for results to
be counted and a government formed.

Some analysts and Western observers have warned the process
could take some time and have pointed to January's vote for an
interim government, formed only two months after the poll.

Qazi said he was looking forward to a good turnout by Sunni
Arabs, the minority dominant under Saddam which has been
leading the insurgency since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Sunnis largely boycotted January's vote but many have since
joined the political process. Sunnis narrowly failed to vote
down the constitutional referendum in October and are expected
to turn out in even larger numbers on Thursday.

Qazi said the IECI had absorbed the lessons learned in the
January and October votes and made appropriate adjustments for
an election that could lead to the eventual withdrawal of U.S.
and other foreign troops from Iraq.