Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Nation/World

Iraqis face tight security for vote

Patrick J. McDonnell Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Eight days before Iraqis go to the polls, the government detailed sweeping plans Saturday to close borders, ban driving, shut down the country’s major airport and institute a broad curfew in an attempt to maintain security on election day.

Officials vowed to do everything possible to protect civilians and polling places from insurgent attacks in a nation where a fierce guerrilla war has cost thousands of lives, stymied infrastructure improvements and left many fearful of voting.

“The security situation is very difficult, and there are many dangers and threats to disrupt the election process,” Interior Minister Falah Naqib acknowledged Saturday. “But we hope, with God’s help, that the security will live up to the needed standards.”

All leaves and vacations for Iraqi security personnel will be canceled, the minister said, and Jan. 29-31 has been declared a period of national holiday. During that period, most vehicular traffic will be prohibited, an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will be in effect, the country’s borders will be shut down and Baghdad International Airport will be closed, he added.

Civilians will be barred from carrying weapons.

Banning driving and imposing a curfew are clearly aimed at thwarting insurgents’ ability to move around and deploy their most effective device – the suicide car bomb. Rumors have swept Baghdad that scores of such bombs are primed and ready to be set off on election day.

Transportation will be provided to those Iraqis who cannot walk to their polling places, the Interior minister said.

Security already has been bolstered significantly on the streets of Baghdad, where checkpoints manned by AK-47-wielding police officers and national guardsmen – many wearing black ski masks to conceal their identities – have multiplied.

Group claims it killed 15 Guardsmen

Word of the enhanced election security came as the drumbeat of violence continued. News services reported that the insurgent Ansar al Sunna Army stated on a Web site that it had executed 15 Iraqi National Guardsmen seized off a bus in western Iraq. Insurgents view Iraqi lawmen as collaborators with U.S. forces and have slaughtered hundreds of them.

At the same time, new video indicated that another insurgent group had decided to free eight kidnapped Chinese construction workers as a “goodwill gesture.” Gunmen seized the eight last week as they headed out of Iraq on the highway to Jordan.

The Chinese government had appealed for their release. In the video, an insurgent wearing a traditional checked head scarf was seen ostensibly allowing the Chinese to be on their way.

The extraordinary measures to protect the election underscore the threat from a deadly insurgency that has raged in Iraq for more than 18 months, although experts say it has grown in size and sophistication and has access to the looted armories of the former regime.

The rebels are thought to be mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs – long dominant in Iraq – who lost their pre-eminent position here after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Their sundry ranks include former soldiers of Saddam’s army, religious militants, anti-U.S. nationalists and others.

Officials have predicted that voting should go relatively smoothly in most of the country, especially the Shiite Muslim areas south of the capital and the Kurdish zones to the far north. Shiites and Kurds, long suppressed during the regime of Saddam, a Sunni Arab, are expected to do well in the voting. Their leaders have endorsed the vote.

But crucial areas, including much of greater Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and the Sunni heartland to the north and west of the capital, remain stalked by violence. Officials acknowledge that voting there will be difficult. Polling places could prove inviting targets.

Pre-electoral intimidation has been aimed at voters and electoral workers, several of whom have already been assassinated. Tens of thousands of additional poll staffers are slated to be on the job on election day. There is grave concern for their safety.

“The intimidation of electoral workers has been quite high: It’s very serious,” Carlos Valenzuela, the chief U.N. adviser to the Iraqi electoral commission, said last week.

“If there is an onslaught … it could create what hasn’t happened so far: … massive resignations from electoral staff. And then the electoral commission would not be in a position to organize the election. We are hoping that that won’t happen.”

Most observers will be Iraqi

The threat of violence is so great that few international observers, now standard at difficult elections worldwide, will be on hand to witness the process, officials say.

Foreigners in Iraq are subject to kidnapping, ambush and execution as alleged collaborators with U.S.-led forces. Instead, thousands of Iraqi observers are to be at polling sites and elsewhere to watch for potential irregularities.

On Jan. 30, Iraqis are to elect a 275-member National Assembly that will be charged with writing a constitution and forming a new government. Iraqis are also to choose 18 provincial councils and, in the three Kurdish provinces, a Kurdish parliament.

About 300,000 Iraqi, U.S. and multinational forces will be available to provide security on election day, officials say. The plan is for Iraqi military and police units to be closest to the more than 5,000 polling places, while U.S. forces will provide outer security rings – keeping a distance from the actual voting sites.

More than 13 million people are estimated to be eligible to vote in Iraq, but officials have no idea how many will actually turn out.

At least 90 percent of Kurds are expected to vote, but estimates of Sunni turnout are as low as 5 percent.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.