- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Joint Iraqi and U.S. security forces foiled an attempt by terrorists to ambush a truck delivering ballots to the nearby city of Muqtadiya yesterday, one in a series of attacks ahead of tomorrow’s vote on a permanent constitution.

A decoy convoy — disguised to look like it was carrying ballots from the Iraqi Electoral Commission and heavily armed with Iraqi forces — drew fire from terrorists hiding in a palm grove outside of Baqouba at midday.

Unknown to the enemy, three ordinary pickup trucks carrying the real ballots already were delivering the precious cargo to the city of Muqtadiya, an hour’s drive away.

Thirty Iraqi soldiers, accompanied by a reporter-photographer for The Washington Times, were assigned to the dummy convoy. It was an all-Iraqi operation. No U.S. soldiers were present.

The Iraqis were ready for a fight.

“By the name of Allah, the most merciful,” said Iraqi army Lt. Hayder, who, like other Iraqi soldiers, goes only by one name to protect his family from being targeted by terrorists.

“This mission is dangerous. Any civilian car moving between our cars should be seen as a threat,” Lt. Hayder said before the mission got under way.

The attack began with the bone-jarring explosion of a roadside bomb followed by a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire.

Within seconds, Iraqi soldiers responded with a wall of automatic-weapons fire. The terrorists ran.

Later, U.S. Kiowa helicopters arrived to escort the convoy to Muqtadiya.

Back at Forward Operating Base Normandy in Muqtadiya, which U.S. Army Task Force 1-30 shares with an Iraqi unit nicknamed “Tiger Battalion.” Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier reflected on the day’s events.

“These [Iraqi soldiers] are ordinary guys that rose to the occasion. In their lifetime, they have never experienced freedom, and now they’re defending it with their lives,” said Col. Cloutier, commander of the task force.

“At the end of the day, everyone was alive, and the ballots are under Iraqi control.”

One Iraqi soldier and two Iraqi election workers were wounded in the attack. All are expected to recover.

With the operation’s success, about 166,000 ballots await voters in Muqtadiya, a city about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Throughout Iraq yesterday, thousands of other Iraqi soldiers, police and election workers risked their lives to prepare for tomorrow’s vote.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told reporters in Baghdad that all major cities would be cordoned off and Iraq’s borders would be closed as of today.

Tomorrow, on the day of the vote, only official vehicles will be allowed on the roads.

Thousands of Iraqi detainees and hospital patients began casting their ballots yesterday, said Adil Al-Lami, chief officer of the Iraqi Electoral Commission.

Election officials began setting up polling stations, located mostly in local schools and mosques. And the violent Sunni triangle, which stretches from Baqouba and Muqtadiya northeast of Baghdad to the Syrian border, was no exception.

The region includes Anbar Province, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have led large sweeps near the Syrian border in recent days to flush out insurgents and terrorists.

In Baghdad yesterday, the few people out on the streets were busy buying food and supplies before the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew that has been imposed across the country for four days.

All airline flights in and out of the country have been canceled, and multiple checkpoints and closed roads have made driving more challenging than usual.

Iraqi forces found and defused numerous vehicles wired to explode and kill or frighten Iraqis from casting votes,

Aside from the armed conflict, a U.S.-brokered deal to defuse Sunni political opposition achieved at least a split in the “no” camp by winning endorsements for the charter from some — in return for a pledge to consider amendments after the vote.

At least eight persons, among them three police officers and a U.S. soldier, were killed in attacks across the country, Reuters news agency reported, but tight security may be working. A U.S. general said daily attacks were down by about 40 percent compared with January’s election campaign.

Sharon Behn contributed from Baghdad to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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