BAGHDAD — Iraq’s government announced yesterday it will impose a nationwide lockdown, shutting down roads, airports and borders, to ensure the safety of voters heading to the polls on Thursday.
In a dramatic turnaround, moderate Sunnis and some insurgent supporters are calling on their followers to vote in the election, which will select a 275-member legislature to serve for the next four years. A new prime minister and Cabinet will be chosen from among the winners.
But Sunni militants vowed over the weekend that the anti-U.S. insurgency would not end until the last American soldier leaves the country, regardless of the outcome Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Salih Serhan told reporters that Iraqi forces were ready to protect towns across the country from the constant threat of bombers.
“We are ready for everything,” Gen. Serhan said from his office inside Baghdad’s fortified green zone.
“We are determined to defeat terrorism. We have [become] a democratic country, and we will never go back to dictatorship,” he told a small group of reporters.
The general said 10 Iraqi army divisions — nearly 150,000 soldiers — would be involved in securing the country. Another 160,000 U.S. troops and thousands of other coalition forces will be backing them up.
Electoral posters for the hundreds of parties taking part in the vote are fluttering all over Baghdad, covering the expanses of concrete barriers that seal off streets and neighborhoods.
Gen. Serhan said all Iraqi borders would be sealed and there would be a nighttime curfew on cars as of this evening. Humanitarian cases were exempt, he said.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq said voting in hospitals and detention centers and for Iraqi security forces would begin as early as today.
Sunni participation is seen as a crucial test of the political process. U.S. and other Western officials see their involvement as a crucial step in ending both the national resistance and the tacit support for foreign terrorists led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.
“They have to participate in the elections. It is one of the means to end the occupation,” said Nabil Younis, senior lecturer of international studies at Baghdad University.
“You can’t just resist with weapons, you must use all your weapons to gain your freedom. If we achieve it politically, then we will not need to fight.”
Aware of the importance of this vote and complaints of vote-rigging in an Oct. 15 national referendum, the election commission is moving quickly to address any sign of fraud.
It said yesterday it had noticed an unusual increase in voter registration in the northern city of Kirkuk, where the number of voters rose by 45 percent in some centers, compared with an average of 8.19 percent nationwide. As a result, 81,297 registration forms were rejected, the commission said.
Gen. Serhan said Iraqis were fed up with terrorist attacks on civilians and were beginning to turn their backs on the extremists.
He credited a civilian tip for the recent capture in western Anbar province of al Qaeda leader Emir Kharif, known as “the Butcher,” who was handed over to U.S. Marines. U.S. officials confirmed the capture.
“There is like a small army being formed called the Desert Protectors, made up of tribal members of Anbar, and these people are working to bring all the information to the Iraqi army,” he said.
But Sunni militants, who defend their action as legitimate resistance against a foreign occupation, said the outcome of the election would not detract them from their fight.
“I consider myself part of the resistance against this occupation, like [Charles] de Gaulle in France and George Washington in America: it is our right to oppose the occupation,” said Fakhri al-Kaisy, head of the Iraqi Salafist Committee. Salafis follow a strict form of Islam.
“In every way we have the right, and we are ready to lose everything, even our blood, for our country — just as the American people would if America were occupied,” said Mr. al-Kaisy, who is said to have close links with the Sunni insurgency.