Wednesday, January 26, 2005

BAGHDAD — Authorities yesterday began detailing some of the extraordinary efforts being made to defend polling places for Sunday’s election in the face of an intense campaign of intimidation by anti-democracy insurgents and terrorists.

U.S. and Iraqi troops, national guardsmen and police will be arrayed in concentric circles around the polling stations, curfews will be in place, and cars will be kept off the streets, officials said.

But many of the preparations have been kept so secret that Iraqis still don’t know where they will go to vote, and no one has explained how the U.S. and Iraqi security forces will work together.

Abu Haider, a civic leader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, said most Iraqis are “hungry” for democracy, but that “most Iraqi people have fears of this election because of security.”

Intimidation efforts have reached a fever pitch, with death threats being posted on homes and rumors of planned bomb attacks circulating around the capital. News that those who vote will have their forefingers marked with indelible ink also has frightened off some voters.

Mr. Haider said he was determined to cast his ballot, not only for the sake of his country, but also “to show the world we can do it.”

Others, however, say the risks will keep them home on Sunday.

“They think if they go for voting, they will be killed, and even if they do not go for voting, there will be bombings or explosions,” said a former candidate who dropped her name from the electoral lists.

“Even my family, they are afraid to go. They hear rumors that [Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab] Zarqawi will start bombings everywhere from now,” she said. “Even the streets are not crowded like before.”

Most of the violence has been conducted either by members of the Sunni minority who fear that the election will end their community’s long grip on power or by foreign Islamists inspired by the likes of terror leader Osama bin Laden.

Many of the latter are followers of Zarqawi, who has issued videos declaring democracy to be un-Islamic and threatening anyone who votes.

The British security firm AKE Group said the militants in Baghdad yesterday had “been handing out leaflets warning ‘those who dare stand in the lines of death to participate in the elections will be responsible for the consequences that will be heavy.’

“According to media reports, the leaflets also warn that the streets of Iraq would be washed with the blood of voters and that mortars, bombs and rockets would be used to shower polling stations.”

The same report cited attacks this week on two schools in the city of Amarah, which are to be used as polling stations.

A senior U.S. Embassy official, seeking to reassure voters, said police would provide the first line of defense around polling stations and that the Iraqi government was “deploying every policeman they can find.”

The next ring of defense will be manned by the Iraqi national guard, the third ring by the Iraqi army. Over the horizon, he said, will be the U.S. and coalition forces.

Officials, meanwhile, are working to convince the public that the vote will be free and fair, explaining in great detail how the 90,000 imported ballot boxes work and how the ballots have been designed to prevent fraud.

Ezzedine al Mohammedi, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission, said the ballot boxes were in storage and would be distributed throughout the country before election day — but did not say when.

Commission spokesman Farid Ayar added that the ballots were “printed as if it were currency, on very, very secure paper.”

He said 18,000 trained Iraqi election monitors, 128 international observers and more than 23,000 political party supporters would be in polling centers across the country to supervise the balloting.

A complete list of about 6,000 polling centers is not to be released to the public until today or tomorrow — 72 hours before the balloting begins.

Voters will cast ballots for a 275-seat parliament and local councils beginning at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Polling stations will close at 5 p.m., and the votes will be counted by commission members, who will be monitored by local independent and political party observers.

Mr. Ayar said the final results will not be announced until 10 days after the vote, on Feb. 9. Partial results could start emerging within six to seven days, he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said 14.27 million Iraqis were registered to vote.

The political parties have taken to local television to promote their platforms. In Baghdad, it is the only way to get their message across because the streets are too dangerous for campaigning.

Mudslinging has become evident, with parties — particularly the leading lists headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and another blessed by Shi’ite Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani — accusing each other of bending campaign rules.

Despite the historic nature of Sunday’s vote, some Iraqis feel that it will take at least a generation for the country to recover.

“Most Iraqis are not interested in this election, to be honest,” said one father of five, as he stood grilling tomatoes and onions outside his home.

“There is no power, no water, no fuel, no gasoline, no diesel. So what is the reason for this election? [The politicians] have not satisfied anybody. Before, there was one Saddam — now, there are tens of Saddams,” he said.

“The future is for our kids,” he continued, getting ready to sit down to lunch. “For the next five to 10 years, we will have to suffer. The future is for my kids, but not for us.”

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