- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

NASARIYAH, Iraq — People are eager to vote in this Shi’ite Muslim city located more than 200 miles from the turmoil of Baghdad and adjoining Sunni Muslim strongholds, say local officials who boast of success keeping violence to a minimum by working with tribal, religious and political leaders.

In the city’s police-run operations room, blue lines cut across large hanging maps of this ancient city, dividing it into areas that Iraqi police and multinational forces will protect during the Jan. 30 elections.

“We have made a security plan with the cooperation of the police, the Iraqi national guard, and the multinational forces,” said Col. Habib Kadhum, a former member of Saddam’s military who now heads Nasariyah’s Facility Protection Service (FPS).

“I feel more confident than before,” Col. Kadhum said, speaking to reporters in a spartan building protected by rows of dirt-filled bags and barbed wire that houses the FPS, a branch of the Iraqi police charged with securing the polling stations for the upcoming vote.

Nasariyah sits some 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, across date groves, tilled green fields dotted with small herds of sheep and camels, the occasional Bedouin tent, and miles of desert sand.

A Shi’ite stronghold, the city led a revolt against Saddam in 1991 that was quickly and brutally crushed.

Italian troops stationed in this area have been training the FPS forces in anti-riot operations, how to check personnel, and how to react if there are any terrorist attacks such as car bombs and suicide bombings.

“Everything is organized,” Col. Kadhum said.

A number of violent attacks over the past weekend appeared to be aimed at upsetting the level of Shi’ite confidence in the south, which includes provinces that the United States has said are safe enough for elections to be held.

Ali al-Dujaidi, a 36-year-old Shi’ite and Communist Party supporter, was keen on the elections.

But he did not feel the ballot significantly would change the political structure set up through the Iraqi interim government that took power just over six months ago.

“I think we are living an illusion. Anyone can create a problem if he wants,” he said. “Nothing much has changed. It is the same people, same political parties, same thoughts.”

Italian Gen. Giovan Battista Borrini, who heads the Italian area of operations in southern Iraq, said the region had fewer Saddam followers and, therefore, less violence than hot spots like Mosul, Baghdad, Fallujah and Baquba.

“Our approach has been very soft and friendly from the beginning,” he said. “We have tried to give the image of ourselves as helpers. Our way of doing things has been very helpful.”

But out in the street, coalition forces and foreign reporters and photographers still can travel only with heavily armed guards and a military escort.

A brief stopover at a local food stall and outdoor pool table quickly began to turn sour as throngs of children began to accuse one reporter of being an Israeli agent and landed a rock on her chest.

Farther north, in the capital Baghdad, the level of tension is much higher.

Iraqi civilians are stocking up on food and water to wait out what they expect will be a bloody two weeks in the run-up to the elections. Local cell phone service is sporadic, and people expect it to be cut completely in the days before the vote.

Those Iraqis who can afford it have crossed the border into neighboring Jordan and Syria.

Others have gone to the Gulf states. Many have packed their suitcases and intend to wait out the elections in the calmer Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Iraq.

To rent a room now in Suleimania costs almost as much as in Jordan, Iraqis say.

“Baghdad is terror, astounding terror,” said one Iraqi woman involved in the electoral process, who asked that her name not be used.

“From the youngest to the old people, even kids taking exams don’t even know if they are going to make it back home. After 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., there is no one out on the streets,” she said.

“Only the ones involved in the parties are going to vote,” she said, adding that she had just spent four days without electricity, and has no telephone service.

Daily life, she said, was “unbelievable, really unbelievable.”

One of a number of politicians who participated in an International Republican Institute (IRI) organized political campaign workshop in Amman, Jordan, last week, said a number of candidates on the electoral lists had withdrawn out of fear of being targeted by terrorists.

“All these people are going to be sacrificed — it is like sending lambs to slaughter,” said the candidate, who asked that her namenot be used.

“Elections in and of itself are not useless if done right. But now, with the situation, it is like leading lambs to slaughter,” she said.

Four members of Congress, three women and one man, participated in the IRI training, which the Iraqi participants felt failed to reflect the reality of trying to campaign in Baghdad.

Terrorists in the capital have led a vicious assassination and threat campaign against anyone perceived as supporting or participating in the electoral process.

Reps. Judy Biggert, Illinois Republican; Kay Granger, Texas Republican; and Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat, arrived at the Amman workshop sporting T-shirts, hats, banners, bumper stickers and even sponges with campaign material printed brightly on them.

“Maybe we should do skeletons with two bones crossed,” the Iraqi candidate said in a macabre reference to the killings that would come if anyone openly declared they were active in the elections.

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