Sunday, January 23, 2005

BAGHDAD — Terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi yesterday declared war on democracy in Iraq “and all those who seek to enact it,” in what was seen as an attempt to intimidate voters from participating in nationwide elections on Sunday.

Polls have shown that most Iraqis plan to vote despite such threats and unremitting violence, but the fear is palpable in conversations with Iraqis, many of whom refuse to be photographed or even to talk to Westerners.

“Please, please, you cannot come here, it is too dangerous for us, you must understand,” pleaded the wife of an Iraqi who previously had agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Times. “Please, my husband cannot go to meet with you. Please, I am afraid.”

It is commonly assumed that insurgents have placed spies in all hotels and other places where Westerners gather. Any Iraqi seen talking to or working with foreigners risks being kidnapped and forced to give information, held for ransom or killed. The capture of a Westerner can earn an Iraqi up to $5,000 and twice that for an American.

In an apparent bid to elevate the fear level, an audiotape attributed to Zarqawi appeared on two Islamist Web sites yesterday, threatening anyone who dares to vote.

“We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it,” said the speaker, whose identity was not confirmed.

“Those who vote … are infidels. And with God as my witness, I have informed them [of our intentions],” he said.

It was not clear whether the threat would deter Iraqis from taking part in the election, which is expected to hand power to the nation’s Shi’ite majority after decades of rule by a Sunni elite led by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Recent polling by the International Republican Institute found that more than 80 percent of potential voters are planning to turn out, including more than half of those in the insurgency-troubled Sunni heartland.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said yesterday that his government would do everything in its power to secure about 5,000 polling places, one of which was blown up yesterday by terrorists in Hilla, south of Baghdad.

U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte also promised a massive effort to protect voters when he appeared on U.S. television networks yesterday, although he acknowledged that there were serious security problems.

“There will be some problematic areas,” he told “Fox News Sunday.” “But even there, great efforts are being made to enable every Iraqi eligible to do so to be able to vote.”

But such promises have done little to reassure families like that of the man who begged off an interview with The Washington Times, a former victim of Saddam’s repression who asked that his name not be used.

His 8-year-old daughter has begun writing poems wondering when the violence will end: “… and the happiness is gone. Why did it have to go and fly from our land like a plane? The happiness is gone from our hearts. Hey! Happiness, please come back to us and make our days happy.”

Others who deal regularly with Westerners also live in fear. One hotel worker said he had left his home completely and began living in the hotel for fear of being killed. First, his family was threatened. Then, several months ago, a note was left at his house saying he would be killed. He has not been back since.

U.S. officials estimate that the insurgents and their sympathizers now number as many as 200,000. Informants are everywhere, according to both Iraqis and U.S. intelligence reports.

The atmosphere can be deceiving at times. Inside homes and hotels, people watch sensuous music videos from Egypt and international news broadcasts. Traffic still fills the streets, and shops are open.

Yesterday, children filled one amusement park, happily riding on a Ferris wheel as adults strolled around, some of them dipping into large bags of potato chips.

Feelings among Iraqis range from rampant fear to resignation to a certain pride at being able to survive in spite of horrendous conditions.

“I spent seven months in Lebanon. It is beautiful, but I could not stay there. The women talk about such small things,” said one young woman who spends her days working for a Western company in Baghdad and at night tries to bathe in a small bucket of water.

“Yes, of course, I will go voting,” said another woman who has taken part in the electoral process. But, she conceded, “We are afraid a little.”

U.S. officials have warned that lethal attacks are likely to spike this week, and security officials describe the polling stations as a “target-rich environment.”

U.S. security reports have estimated that there are about 150 car bombs parked and ready to explode around Baghdad and that snipers will be targeting Iraqis who walk into polling stations.

Some foreign reporters have hired armed security teams to escort them when they leave their hotels. Others are opting for no security at all, so as not to attract attention. Conversations focus on road closures, security decisions and the establishment of buddy systems in case of emergencies.

Most Western contractors living in Baghdad are in a state of siege. They have stockpiled water and food and have weapons cocked and ready whenever they go into the streets. Many have simply left the country until after the election.

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