Iraq Secures Vote Sites for Key Test of Democracy; Al Qaeda Looms in Provincial Elections

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Iraq Secures Vote Sites for Key Test of Democracy; Al Qaeda Looms in Provincial Elections


Byline: Richard Tomkins, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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