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Major Challenges Still to Come for Iraqis

(Washington, D.C.--February 16, 2005) The parliamentary election in Iraq is "the first step in a 1,000 mile journey" according to Kathleen Ridolfo, the editor of RFE/RL's "Iraq Report." Ridolfo told an audience at RFE/RL that although the election was successful, Iraqis face major challenges over the next year as they work to complete the rigorous timeline for a transition to a constitutionally-based democratic form of government because the "35-year rule of Saddam Hussein has left Iraqi society deeply scarred -- no part of society was left untouched."

The election generally ran "rather smoothly," however the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) received complaints of ballot shortages and electoral violations by political parties in several cities, Ridolfo said. As examples she cited the CEC's report that gunmen stole and later returned forty ballot boxes that held up to 10,000 ballots in Ninawah province which includes Mosul, a city with a high minority population. Complaints of disabled polling centers were also recorded. In Mosul, only 93 out of over 300 voting centers opened. The ballots for some local government seats failed to contain the names of legally registered candidates. Under the election law, campaigning was to cease 48 hours before election-day, however, many parties – including Prime Minister Allawi's party appeared to have violated the rule. Complaints were filed to the CEC that the Governor of Al-Najaf province sent the police force out campaigning on election-day. The CEC has fined these parties $1,600 each, to set an example, but doubts the extra campaigning would affect the overall vote count. Despite these setbacks, Ridolfo said, unexpected voter turnout demonstrated that "the Iraqi people have had enough of the insurgents."

Once the parliament is assembled, it must elect a prime minister and two deputies to serve as the "presidential council." Ridolfo said there are reports of "backroom deals" between the Kurds and Shiites, with the Kurds urging their voters to the polls to "secure a strong presence in the national assembly... the Kurdish parties have already divvied up their own Kurdish [regional] parliament." Jalal Talabani, a veteran Kurdish leader, is the favored Kurdish candidate to be a member of the presidential council, and having a Kurd within the council enables them to maintain their "push for autonomy in Northern Iraq," she said. The Kurds maintain that the Shiites will need to join a coalition with them in order to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary in the parliament according to Ridolfo. This raises concerns about the stability of the coalition while drafting the constitution because, Ridolfo says, the Kurds are seeking "ethnic federalism," while the Shiites support an "administrative federalism" within Iraq.

Under the UN timetable, the newly-elected national assembly has six months to write the constitution which would be voted in a referendum no later than 15 October said Ridolfo. The statement by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that Islam should be a source for legislation has raised concerns over the outcome of the constitution since at this moment, it is unclear whether "source" refers to the recognition of Islam as the main religion of Iraq, or moreover possibly a source of legislation, Ridolfo said, however, SCIRI officials have been consistent in stating they do not want a theocracy like Iran.

The overt and covert influence of neighboring Iran is also predicted to become a long-term problem, said Ridolfo: "Iran has a hold on southern Iraq and probably seeks to expand its influence." There are reports that there is Iranian funding of various political parties, but possibly more disturbing is the report that in the "southern city of al-Basrah the militia men who control the streets speak Persian, not Arabic," she said.

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