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Iraqi Expatriates Now Allowed To Vote in Upcoming Elections

By Edward Wong

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

Iraqi electoral officials said Thursday that they would allow millions of Iraqis outside the country to vote in the upcoming election. The decision, made after weeks of anguished debate, appeared certain to increase tensions among the minority Sunni Arabs here, since most Iraqi expatriates are believed to be Shiite.

“We’ve decided to allow Iraqis abroad to vote, and the mechanism will be worked out in the coming days,” said Adel al-Lami, a supervisor for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, charged with organizing the country’s first democratic elections, scheduled for January. “The voting will take place in those countries with a large number of Iraqis.” Those 18 and older will be eligible, the officials said.

The United Nations and the United States had recommended strongly against allowing expatriate voting because such polling is notoriously difficult to organize and because the process is more prone to irregularities and charges of fraud. Accusations of such problems could threaten the legitimacy of the entire election, U.N. and American officials said.

But leading Shiite and Kurdish politicians, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, strongly supported expatriate voting.

Carlos Valenzuela, the head of the U.N. electoral advisory team, said the dangers had been made clear to them. “We’ve told them from point one that it’s a very risky business,” he said. “People don’t realize the potential implications of this. They’re huge -- practical, logistical, political. And all this has to be done in the time frame allotted.”

The commission must still determine the procedure for expatriate voting, as well as where it will be allowed, which is a politically charged issue. The commission must also have a relatively large budget for the polling.

Many Iraqis fled during the 35-year rule of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. An estimated 2 million to 4 million Iraqis are now living abroad -- about half of them over 18 -- with some of the biggest concentrations in Britain, the United States and Iran. Those voters could account for up to a powerful 15 percent of the total in January, when Iraqis are to elect a 275-member national assembly.

The assembly will then install an executive government and draft a permanent constitution. Direct elections for a full-term government are planned for the end of 2005.

The big Shiite political parties lobbied hardest to allow expatriate voting, with al-Sistani issuing strong statements of support for the idea in recent weeks. After hundreds of years of minority rule by Sunnis in the region, leaders of the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population, are jockeying for maximum advantage in the elections.