- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

BAQOUBA, Iraq | Concrete blast-protection barriers, concertina wire and police units are in place at schools in this city northeast of Baghdad, as Iraq girds itself for provincial elections Saturday that will test the young democracy and possibly set the stage for parliamentary balloting at the end of the year.

The schools designated as voting centers are considered prime targets for suicide bombers from al Qaeda, which is still active in Diyala province, one of Iraq’s most restive regions.

“Al Qaeda, the enemy, the opponent, obviously, has a vote,” said Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 25th Infantry Division´s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. “And he will look for those critical [security] vulnerabilities, if he can find them, and he’ll try to exploit those.”

Voting began Wednesday for security forces, hospital patients and prisoners, so police and military units could cast ballots before being deployed Saturday.

Police units will be at the polls, all vehicle traffic has been banned and women will be with police at entrances to polling stations to search women entering the confines for hidden explosives.

Iraqi army units will form a more distant security perimeter and generally stay out of sight. U.S. troops will be on alert as a quick reaction force if needed.

“We´re not expecting any trouble, but we´re ready for it,” said Amir Atif Ali, who is in charge of a government Facilities Protection Service unit at a school in Baqouba´s Hayy Salaam neighborhood.

“The people are ready for this election, and it is important they feel safe,” he said.

Saturday´s balloting in 14 of Iraq´s 18 provinces will be the first major contest since January 2005.

More than 14,000 candidates - independents as well as representatives from some 400 parties and political blocs - are running for 444 seats. As many as 15 million people could cast ballots.

The outcomes of the contests have importance nationally as well as locally. Provincial councils elect provincial governors and with them have strong influence in the appointments or firings of provincial police chiefs.

The councils and governors also form a potential base of political support for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been strengthening his influence throughout the country through government-funded tribal councils.

The elections Saturday will change sectarian balance of power in some areas of the country, especially in Diyala province, where Sunnis represent the majority population and Shi’ites hold the reins of political power.

The imbalance was created when Sunnis boycotted elections in 2005 in protest over the U.S. occupation. Although the council has proportional representation based on votes earned, Sunnis complain that they are marginalized politically and economically as a result of their nonparticipation.

This time, Sunnis are participating, which means a likely swing in the balance of power.

How such a change plays out in the weeks and months after the election is the big question. Will it fuel renewed sectarian violence or can Shi’ites and Sunnis accept the results?

“The situation is different now,” said Amad Ahmed Mohammed, an Iraqi police major of mixed-sect background in Baqouba. “People recognize good from bad. If the government - Sunni or Shi’ite - gives them what they need, they will support the government.

“Many people believe this election will be good for them. They need someone to save them from the old names, to take responsibility and help everyone,” Mr. Mohammed said, referring to current leaders. “We hope everybody understands Iraq is for everybody.”

The major said the main complaint of people in Baqouba, the provincial capital, is corruption and lack of essential services, such as water and power.

An example of the corruption that affects people most, he said, is monthly food allotments given to families by the government.

Twelve items - including sugar, rice, flour, cooking oil, tea and soap - are supposed to be distributed. But often, just three or four items are available. When that happens, the missing commodities appear for sale on the black market.

An opinion poll taken in 14 provinces earlier this month by the government-funded National Media Center indicated that a plurality of 4,570 people questioned said improvement in basic services must be the priority of provincial governments.

Forty-one percent said they would support secular candidates, while 31 percent said they would vote for candidates backed by religion-based parties.

Details of the polling - including margin of error and how it was conducted - were not given.

Elsewhere in the country, balloting also could affect Iraq´s political future. In southern provinces, Mr. al-Maliki´s Dawa party is competing against other Shi’ite organizations, including its coalition government partner, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.

In the south, where Mr. al-Maliki sent government troops last spring to fight Shi’ite extremist militias, there is a push for regional autonomy similar to that of the Kurdish provinces, which are not holding a vote Saturday.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said pre-election violence has been minimal. Security plans are in place to keep it that way at more than 70 voting sites in Diyala province on election day. The aftermath should indicate whether Iraq´s experiment with democracy has gained traction.

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