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Low Turnout For Iraq Exile Vote

Registration for overseas absentee voting in Iraq's national election has been extended by two days because the turnout so far in the weeklong campaign has run far behind expectations, organizers said Saturday.

As of Thursday, fewer than one in 10 of the estimated 1.2 million eligible Iraqis living abroad in 14 countries had registered.

The International Organization for Migration, which is organizing the overseas vote, decided to continue registrations through Monday and Tuesday.

"The extra days will apply to each of the 74 registration centers in all 14 countries where Iraqis are able to register and vote, pending the approval of the host governments," the organization said in a statement.

"We are extending our operation in an effort to provide Iraqi voters with as much access to our centers as possible," said Peter Erben, director of the project.

In other developments:

  • Because of the violence in Iraq, next week's election will be the first among dozens of transitional elections over the past two decades not to have international observers monitoring polling stations, election experts tell The Washington Post.
  • Iraq's interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, announced Baghdad's international airport would be closed Jan. 29 and 30, the day of the election, and that many parts of the country would be under a nighttime curfew for three days around the time of the balloting.
  • Al-Naqib refused to comment on rumors that the top terror leader in the country had been taken into custody. "I wouldn't like to comment for the time being," Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said when asked about rumors that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been arrested.
  • Insurgents from the Ansar al-Sunnah Army said they had executed 15 kidnapped Iraqi National Guardsmen for cooperating with U.S. forces.
  • An official at Iraq's Defense Ministry confirmed Ahmad Chalabi's charge that it had transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from the Iraqi Central Bank to a financial institution in Beirut, Lebanon, to buy weapons — but said it did so in a legal manner and with the knowledge of multinational authorities. Iraqi interim Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan says Iraqi authorities will initiate criminal proceedings against Chalabi next week, noting he "wanted to tarnish the image of the Defense Ministry."
  • Guerillas attacked a building Saturday that is to be used as a polling station in the northern city of Mosul, blasting it with machine-gun fire and shoulder-fired rockets. Iraqi security troops guarding the building fired back. One civilian was hurt, a hospital official said.
  • Two Iraqi police officers were killed by a bomb south of Baghdad Friday night, U.S. Marines said.
  • In the city of Qaim, on the Syrian border, residents discovered a man's decapitated body in a marketplace. The head was placed on the back of the body with a handwritten note claiming he was an Iraqi Army soldier.
  • On Friday night, an ambulance packed with explosives blew up in a crowd of Shiite Muslims celebrating a wedding near Youssifiyah, a village 12 miles miles south of the capital. Seven people were killed and 16 wounded, including the bride and groom.
  • Also Friday, a car bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, killing at least 14 people.
  • Insurgents said in a video released to Al-Arabiya television that they decided to release eight kidnapped Chinese construction workers as a "goodwill gesture." Beijing says it has not made contact with the hostages so far.

    Niurka Pineiro, spokeswoman for the Geneva-based organization organizing the Iraqi exile vote, said that "in some places" the turnout has been less than anticipated. She noted that in Australia only one in eight of the estimated eligible voters had signed up as of Thursday.

    "It could be a number of things. It could be procrastination, it could be apathy, they don't have the right documents. There are many Iraqis who have been out for a long time," Pineiro said.

    "It's a mixture of apathy and apprehension," said Bernie Hogan, the head of the voting effort in Australia, explaining the lack of response from Iraqis living in that country.

    Despite predictions that as many as 50,000 Iraqis living in Australia could join the electoral rolls, only 6,500 have done so.

    "The apathy comes from people who say nothing's going to happen, it's a sham, I'm comfortable here in Australia and I'm not going to get involved," Hogan said.

    But a larger section of the community is simply suspicious of the process, he said, afraid of adding their names to a government-sponsored list they fear could be used against them.

    "After decades and decades of tyranny and government abuse, they're not confident about the future of government and they're not confident about the use of registration material," he said.

    The absentee voting itself will still be held over three days, Jan. 28-30, with the final day coinciding with the election day in Iraq, the agency said.

    To register, Iraqis have to document their identity, Iraqi nationality and birth on or before Dec. 31, 1986. They must then return to the same location to vote.

    As of Thursday, 93,847 overseas Iraqis had registered, the agency said.

    The national breakdown of registrations through the first four days is 5,158 in Australia; 8,506 in Britain; 3,473 in Canada; 5,084 in Denmark; 267 in France; 6,448 in Germany; 20,805 in Iran; 5,019 in Jordan; 4,882 in the Netherlands; 10,773 in Sweden; 6,236 in Syria; 2,144 in Turkey; 6,086 in the United Arab Emirates; and 8,966 in the United States.

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