Marines urging Anbar province officials to participate in Iraq elections
January 15, 2005
AL ASAD, Iraq — Marine Corps officials are continuing their all-out effort to persuade Anbar province officials to participate in the upcoming elections despite skepticism about the process and the security of polling stations.
On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, 1st Marine Division commander, joined officials from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit to brief a group of influential local sheiks, imams and political leaders on the vote, which is now just about two weeks away.
“We believe the election is the first step in repairing the situation … to fix the infrastructure, build security forces and allow a government to be established that the Iraqi people want,” Natonski said.
“We want democracy in Iraq to be an Iraqi democracy, not an American democracy.”
The Sunni Muslims, who dominate Anbar but are a minority in Iraq as a whole, are largely doubtful of the process, saying the Shiite majority would likely limit the Sunni turnout.
On Sunday, the entire 13-member Anbar province electoral commission resigned after members said they received death threats from insurgents. While the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq quickly replaced them with commissioners from Baghdad, the move underscored the difficulty of assuring the vote in the region.
Another problem, local officials say, is explaining to potential voters the bewildering number of candidates and parties on the ballot.
According to the commission, there are more than 7,200 candidates for the 275 representative seats to the assembly, which will write Iraq’s new constitution; 72 parties, 25 independent candidates and nine “coalitions” of candidates have registered.
At the next level down, there are 382 lists for the nearly 8,000 candidates running for spots on the 18 provincial councils to be elected. Each council will have 41 members, except in Baghdad, which will have 51.
Any Iraqi citizen born after Dec. 31, 1986, is eligible to vote.
There will be 7,000 ballot boxes across the country, the IECI says, and more than 100,000 Iraqi security forces protecting polling stations. U.S. military officials, wary about any perception that they seek to influence the vote, have said they will not put forces at the polling stations.
Because of the continuing violence in Anbar and the large number of Iraqis displaced from cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, Anbar residents can vote at any polling station in the province as well as three stations in Baghdad. Officials have not yet released the locations of polling sites in Anbar because they do not want them targeted for attacks.
Polls will open just after sunrise and stay open until the last voter casts a ballot.
At Wednesday’s meeting on Al Asad, a sprawling air base northwest of Fallujah, U.S. officials acknowledged security concerns and political worries but urged the local officials to participate.
“We need your assistance in educating your people on what they can and should be doing to prepare for the elections,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, the 31st MEU election coordinator.
The local officials felt there should be more polling stations.
“The number of sites is selected by the IECI,” Horne told the group.
“One of the limiting factors is, there need to be Iraqis working the polls.”
The commission has mandated each polling station have at least 30 people working, a figure that adds up to more than 300 polling station workers in western Anbar Province alone.
“They may not have enough workers to man all the polling stations as is,” Horne said.
“If they do, we’ll be pleased, but they’re struggling to get the workers.”
“Right now, we’re building a new democracy,” Horne said, meaning the Iraqis and Americans together. “And this is the first step.”