ABIDJAN, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's long-awaited presidential election, which will cement peace between President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels, is "technically impossible" this year and will be held in 2009, an electoral official said on Friday.
The vote in the world's No. 1 cocoa producer, which had already been delayed several times since 2005 by political conflict and sporadic violence, was scheduled for Nov. 30.
But an official at the Independent Electoral Commission told Reuters that delays in the registration of voters, including a strike by census officials working to identify citizens, meant the poll could not be held on the date planned.
"The presidential election cannot be held this year. It's technically impossible when you look at the work to be done on the ground to register all the voters," said the commission official. He asked not to be named because the public announcement of a postponement has not yet been made.
The vote is now expected to be held in the first quarter of 2009. There was no immediate comment from the government or presidency.
The election will seal a March 2007 peace deal signed between Gbagbo and northern rebels, who fought a 2002/2003 civil war in the West African state, where French and United Nations peacekeepers are backing the election process.
Gbagbo is widely expected to stand for re-election.
In recent weeks, both the president and the New Forces rebels who are part of a coalition government that emerged from the peace deal have acknowledged delays in disarmament and voter enrollment and have indicated a postponement is likely.
"The presidential election will be postponed to 2009, that's for sure," the electoral commission official said. "But we can't announce it now so as not to break the momentum of (voter) registration among the people."
RISK OF POPULAR FRUSTRATION
In a report for the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the time remaining until the elections was "still fraught with formidable challenges."
Many uncompleted tasks could pose serious risks to the elections and Ivory Coast's peace process and stability if they were not carefully managed, Ban said in the report made available in New York on Friday.
Richard Moncrieff, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said the international community backing the Ivorian election should use any delay to work to guarantee adequate security for the polls process.
"It is crucial the process is right," he told Reuters in Dakar, adding there were concerns that recent incidents when youths disrupted some voter registration and identification sessions could escalate into wider political violence.
"At the same time, there is a risk in any delay to the vote, a risk of frustration among the population, which has already seen so many previous delays," Moncrieff added.
The New Forces rebels, who still control the northern half of the country, a week ago requested a postponement of the Nov. 30 election date, citing the delays in voter registration and in the demobilisation of civil war combatants.
Gbagbo, the rebels and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, who helped mediate the 2007 Ivorian peace deal, are due to meet by the end of this month to decide whether or not to set a new date for the vote.
But the electoral commission official said the new date, which would be agreed with the country's political parties, might not be announced until mid-November.
"The CEI has the competent personnel and the material to organize transparent elections. But, it must be recognized that the political obstacles are enormous. We need disarmament, we need reunification," the official said.
In recent months, dissident former rebel combatants have staged armed protests to demand bigger demobilisation payouts.
This has raised fears of renewed unrest and violence which could unravel the 2007 peace deal signed between Gbagbo and New Forces rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who is serving as prime minister until elections are held.
(Additional reporting and writing by Pascal Fletcher)
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