Friday, January 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s deputy prime minister yesterday predicted that voter turnout to form a National Assembly tomorrow will prove skeptics wrong and exceed voting in U.S. national elections.

Barham Salih also said the stakes are enormous for the entire world, not just Iraq and nations in the U.S.-led coalition.

“It will definitely be better than voter turnout in the U.S. and the United Kingdom,” Mr. Salih said in an interview while sitting beneath palm trees outside his marbled office in Baghdad’s fortified green zone.

“And that would be a remarkable achievement given the security environment and intimidation that most Iraqis face,” he said.

The eligible-voter turnout in November’s U.S. presidential election was 60.7 percent.

While Mr. Salih spoke, insurgents battled American troops and terrorists attacked polling stations as tomorrow’s vote for a 275-seat National Assembly approached.

Explosions rattled Baghdad and gunfire crackled above the noon call to prayer.

Insurgents killed five American soldiers, set off a suicide car bomb that killed four Iraqi policemen in Baghdad and continued to attack polling sites across the country.

A U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crashed in southwest Baghdad last night. The cause of the crash and fate of the crew were not immediately known. Kiowas usually have a crew of two pilots.

Iraqis planning to face a gantlet of intimidation to cast their ballots tomorrow won praise and encouragement from the cleric at an influential Sunni Muslim mosque in Baghdad.

“The National Assembly is going to happen. Each voter must choose the candidate he believes in,” said Sheik Moayed al-Adhami, imam at Abu Hanifa mosque where a typical Friday prayer service is filled with fiery rhetoric, often against the U.S. presence in Iraq.

“We must choose the best-suited people, the wisest, the most intelligent and patient,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. “The nation must choose the candidates who are of merit and deserve their vote.”

Although many Sunni religious leaders have urged their followers to boycott the vote, in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad, where the insurgency has found a haven, it appeared people were seriously considering casting their ballots.

“If we succeed here, and build a functioning democracy, the consequences are huge. Almost everyone has a stake in the process. We have no option but to try and make a difference,” Mr. Salih said.

“All our problems today pale in comparison to what we suffered under Saddam,” he said.

British and U.S. security reports are warning of heavy insurgent and terrorist activity tomorrow. Terrorists have been warning that they will kill anyone who votes.

With election results not expected for a week to 10 days, voter turnout and casualty tolls have become key gauges of the election’s success.

Turnout in the Kurdish North and among Shi’ites, who live mainly in the South, is expected to be heavy. The two groups comprise about 80 percent of Iraq’s 14 million voters.

According to two recent State Department surveys, including one conducted Jan. 10-19, more than 80 percent of Iraq’s Shi’ite population said it was “very likely” they would vote.

Shi’ite leaders say Muslims have a religious duty to vote, in contrast to many Sunni leaders who are calling for a boycott.

About 30 percent of Sunnis in the State Department-sponsored poll said they plan to vote.

Many of Baghdad’s prominent Sunni clerics, who have lambasted the electoral process, were notably mute yesterday.

In the mosque of Uum al-Qura, home to the hard-line Committee of Muslim Scholars, the largest association of Sunni clerics in Iraq, Mahmud al-Sumaydai avoided any mention of the elections, as did the speaker at another mosque, Ibn Tamiyah, Agence France-Presse reported.

By evening yesterday, the military had closed down major bridges and thoroughfares.

A nationwide curfew will be in effect today and vehicle movement will be severely restricted. Rings of military and police forces will be placed around the nation’s 6,000 voting places.

The presence of U.S. troops has become a campaign issue in Iraq, with candidates commenting on how long the forces should stay.

Although no one has called for an immediate withdrawal, Mr. Salih said after the election the coalition forces should start taking a lower profile.

He said the government was in the process of finalizing arrangements for new training programs for Iraqi security forces.

“Iraqi forces must take the lead and urban centers must be secured by Iraqis,” the deputy prime minister told reporters at a press conference later in the day. “The present dynamics are not acceptable either to us or the Americans.”

But, Mr. Salih said, multinational forces would be needed for some time to come as deterrence against neighboring nations that had “designs” on Iraq.

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