- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi and U.S. security forces patrolled at maximum strength yesterday, shutting down the streets for national elections that Iraqis hope will mark a turning point in their nation’s history.

Roads were almost deserted in the capital, with boys playing soccer in the main streets and little girls walking and giggling in the warm sunlight. The few cars about moved gingerly, stopping dead when Iraqi army convoys thundered down the highways, bristling with guns and soldiers.

“I want peace. I feel safe when I see so many police,” said Suham, a woman in her mid-50s who has dared to leave her house only twice since arriving from Syria one month ago. Like most Iraqis, she agreed to be identified only by her first name.

She pointed to windows patched with cardboard after repeated bomb blasts near her house in the Qadisiyah neighborhood. It became too expensive to keep replacing the glass, she said.

Anticipating attacks by hard-core Sunni insurgents or followers of terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Ministry of Interior has shut down the country’s borders, airports and provincial roads.

Police in Baghdad have surrounded every polling station, located mainly in schools. Roads to the centers have been blocked with 2-foot concrete barriers and rolls of razor wire to prevent car bombings.

At a polling station in the wealthier Harithiyah neighborhood, a special forces soldier who identified himself only as Mohammed said Iraq was much safer than a year ago. Twelve months ago, he said, he never would have worn his uniform on the street.

“I would be dead in five minutes,” he said, standing next to several blue-uniformed policemen. “Today, I walk around in my uniform and the terrorists are running.”

Ballots have been delivered to more than 6,000 polling centers, and the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) is looking into reports of irregularities, aware that this election will set Iraq’s political course for the next four years.

Local and international reports said authorities had stopped a truck coming from Iran carrying boxes full of fake ballots. Iran repeatedly has been accused of trying to influence the vote.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told CNN that there was “evidence of direct and indirect” interference by Tehran in Iraq’s internal affairs, including an effort “at infiltration of certain institutions.”

The IECI says it is determined to ensure a credible vote after complaints of fraud during an Oct. 15 referendum on a draft constitution.

Of particular concern are reports of attacks on voting centers in the Kurdish-dominated north and irregularities in the contracting of poll workers in Sunni-majority Anbar province.

Chief electoral officer Adil al-Lami said the IECI would audit polling centers before and after the election — taking physical stock of voting materials, checking ballots for tampering and looking for unusual voting patterns.

Iraqis are divided on the importance of the vote. Some think corruption and violence are so entrenched that no government can pull the country back up.

“There is no one who really cares for this country. Every party wants power for their own benefit,” said Aad, a 40-year-old father of five, who has been unemployed for two years despite his university degree.

Others are more optimistic.

“I think things will change, because all parties will be part of the new government,” said Abu Saara, a 38-year-old father of four, as he watched television cartoons with his children in his modest home.

“Also the new government will stay four years, and this will give them time to do everything,” he said.

Many hope that with Sunnis entering the political process, the Sunni-led insurgency will weaken and support for Zarqawi will dissolve over time.

“Everything has an end,” said Mohammed, proudly displaying the special forces insignia stitched onto his new camouflage uniform.

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