Monday, December 13, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Marines yesterday cleared bodies from buildings at the scene of their biggest battle since the fall of Baghdad, securing this former insurgent stronghold for the return of thousands of civilians and upcoming elections.

But six weeks before the historic vote, a U.S. official said, fewer than 1 percent of eligible Iraqis have responded to a voter-registration drive, forcing authorities to look for other ways to build up voter lists.

Iraqis cite security worries as the main reason for the slow response, with some expressing fears of continued violence and corruption even after the Jan. 30 election for a legislative assembly.

Those dangers were underscored again as U.S. military officials announced early this morning that seven Marines had been killed in two incidents in Anbar province, where Fallujah is located.

A U.S. statement said the Marines were killed while conducting “security and stabilization operations.”

Still, U.S. military and government officials, as well as involved Iraqis, are putting enormous efforts into getting out the vote, convinced that a successful election will establish a legitimate government and declaw a vicious insurgency.

“What we are doing now is fighting the bad guys, taking care of them before the elections,” said 23-year-old Lance Cpl. Josh Byrne of Illinois, standing inches deep in mud in front of his vehicle.

He and his comrades had found several bodies — some of them Syrians and Chechens — as they cleared rooms and buildings in what had been the country’s main stronghold for insurgents and terrorists.

“We are cleaning up the city and providing security for anybody who wants to build the place back up and give them everything like we have back home,” Cpl. Byrne said.

One military official, waiting for a helicopter ride out of the city, said the streets in Fallujah still “smell like death.” But, Cpl. Byrne said, “It’s the live ones you’ve got to worry about.”

Occasional battles are still taking place amid the rubble of the low-lying city just west of Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with guerrillas in several Fallujah suburbs yesterday, ending with U.S. air strikes on suspected enemy hide-outs.

Iraqi election officials have asked U.S. forces to help them set up blast barriers and assist with force protection in advance of the January elections.

The Iraqis “are very excited about democracy,” said Maj. Ben Wild, an elections officer working in Fallujah. “What they are worried about are suicide bombers and intimidation.”

That fear is not isolated to Fallujah. Residents of Baghdad also are saying they are not sure whether they are willing to risk their lives to cast their ballots, expressing fears that polling stations will be targeted.

Others swear they will not be deterred. One of those is the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, the group set up by the United Nations to organize the election.

“They can’t hit every single polling station,” said Farid Ayar, sitting in his tiny office in the heavily protected green zone.

“For me, a man who suffered under Saddam, I feel that this election is a turning point to create a new Iraq,” he said. “I am over 60, and I never voted in my life, so I find this a challenge — to go once in my life to vote.”

But Mr. Ayar, like everyone in Iraq, recognizes that security is a major issue. He rarely goes into the city streets anymore, especially because his face has become well-known after months of promoting the election in national and international news outlets.

Because there is no reliable census information, voter lists have been put together based on U.N. food-rationing lists from the era of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, with everyone on those lists being sent a form to verify its accuracy.

But only 60,000 to 70,000 people in a country of about 25 million have responded — about .25 percent — and authorities are now looking for other ways to qualify citizens to vote.

“Iraqis want democracy, but they know if they reach out, they will get shot,” said a U.S. official in Baghdad who declined to be identified.

In Mosul, carloads of voter-registration cards were burned by those trying to stop the vote. Any final ballot count will have to depend on helicopters to ferry the papers to Baghdad to avoid road ambushes.

But U.S. and top Iraqi officials are determined to make sure that the election works.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has pumped $86 million into organizations such as the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute to work with local Iraqis on organizing the vote.

They also have worked to set up elected town councils, which USAID administrator Andrew Natsios credits with having helped create a political base that the national elections can draw on.

“This is an emotional turning point for the country,” Mr. Natsios told The Washington Times during a visit to Baghdad. “It will give legitimacy to the new government.”

Mr. Natsios predicted that a majority of Sunnis would take part in the vote in spite of a threatened boycott. Indeed, two moderate, mainly Sunni Muslim parties announced yesterday that they would field slates of candidates.

Long favored by Saddam, the minority Sunnis lost their political clout with his fall, and now feel they are getting a raw deal politically. They are demanding more time to organize.

Some Sunni leaders have asked the interim government to delay the election while others, such as firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have threatened to not participate at all.

Some international leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi, have said Iraq is not ready to hold elections because of the continuing high level of car bombs, insurgent attacks, mortar attacks and gunfire.

But Mr. Ayar dismissed that advice.

“He is not here to judge the security situation,” he said of Mr. Brahimi. “He is sitting somewhere in Switzerland. He is not playing any role.

“He can’t be better than me — this is my country, I know my country. We will go ahead with this election, and we will do it well,” Mr. Ayar said.

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