Joined: Sat May 29, 2004 11:46 pm
|Phones down, borders sealed, troops on the streets: it's time for democracy
By Richard Beeston in Baghdad
State of alert will match the battle for Fallujah
THE plan sounds more like the preparations for war than the holding of Iraq’s first democratic elections. But such is the dire state of Iraqi security today that the authorities in Baghdad are considering a complete lockdown of the country ahead of polls in two weeks’ time.
According to Iraqi and Western sources, international borders will be sealed, movement between cities tightly controlled, mobile phone networks switched off and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces and foreign troops deployed in a show of force not seen since the height of the war nearly two years ago.
The draconian measures aim to prove to the estimated 15 million voters that it is safe to cast their ballot, while deterring the insurgents from killing off the election with their campaign of violence and intimidation.
Although details will be kept secret until the last moment, it is clear that Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister, is planning a countrywide alert similar to the one he imposed during the storming of Fallujah in November by US Marines.
A state of emergency law, granting the authorities sweeping powers, has recently been renewed until the beginning of February to cover the January 30 election date.
That will allow curfews to be imposed, restrict movement between cities, open special courts where police can obtain arrest warrants around the clock and seal off Iraq’s land and air borders to civilian traffic. With that in place the Iraqis are also planning to halt the movement of insurgents, who seem able to strike at will from southern Iraq all the way to the northern capital of Mosul, currently the bloodiest city in the country.
Traffic is expected to be strictly limited to those with special passes and the mobile phone network, which is a patchy service at best, will be turned off to hamper rebel communications.
“I would like to assure the Iraqi people that we will protect every citizen who will come forward to vote in the elections,” said Falah al-Naqib, the Iraqi Interior Minister, yesterday, after meeting police chiefs from around the country to co-ordinate the plans.
Arguably the key factor in the operation will be the use of foreign forces, particularly the heavily reinforced 150,000 US troops and, in the South, the newly strengthened British contingent of some 9,000. Although a political liability, the coalition troops remain the only force powerful enough to take on the insurgency in an open fight.
A senior British official said that the aim was to have Iraqi forces, drawn from the police and National Guard, provide security around the thousands of polling stations dotted across the country. Foreign forces would be deployed in the vicinity and ready to step in as reinforcements in case of an attack.
Some of the tactics being used to protect candidates and voters will make the Iraqi elections a unique event. All candidates for the national assembly appear on one of the 111 party lists registered with the electoral commission. In many cases the names of those who wish to stand for public office are not actually available and will only be shown on request inside the polling station on election day.
Polling stations too are going undercover. The location of many polling stations will not be announced until a few days before the election.
The precautions are certainly necessary. Several election workers have already been killed by militants, who have said that taking part in the poll is a crime punishable by death.
US military commanders and the Iraqi Government have written off the idea of holding normal polls in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces, where the Sunni Muslim rebellion is at its strongest.
Most of the preparations seem to be geared toward protecting areas in the South and North, to allow the country’s Shia Muslim majority and the autonomous Kurdish population to vote in peace.
That remains a formidable challenge.
On Wednesday night gunmen killed Sheikh Mahmoud al-Madaen, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, who has told his brethren that voting is a religious duty.
Sheikh Mahmoud was killed with his son and four bodyguards in the city of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Halim al-Mohaqeq, another al-Sistani aide, was found dead in the holy city of Najaf.
The deaths coincide with fresh violence in the northern city of Mosul, where a suicide car bomber and a separate car bomb killed at least two Iraqi soldiers.
Link: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0, ... 84,00.html
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