U.S., Iraqi forces begin security operation to protect voters
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. troops packed extra uniforms and ammunition before moving out of their main base Thursday to take up positions around Baghdad, part of a massive security operation to protect voters during weekend elections that insurgents have vowed to disrupt.
Iraqi police and soldiers will play the more visible role, manning checkpoints and securing the polls -- many of which have already been bombed and rocketed by insurgents ahead of Sunday's vote.
American troops will be around, nonetheless -- backing up the Iraqis in the event of major violence the Iraqis can't handle, U.S. and Iraqi commanders said.
The U.S. presence could make American troops easier targets, and it also has raised concerns the United States might be seen as orchestrating the elections.
About 300,000 Iraqi, U.S. and other multinational troops and police will provide security for the voting, which will take place at 5,300 polling centers.
Patrol boats will ply the country's rivers, tanks will protect important roads and bridges, and warplanes will streak overhead. Medical teams will be on alert and nationwide restrictions on traffic will be imposed from Saturday to Monday to try to deter car bombs.
Curfew begins today
Insurgents have promised to disrupt the voting with car bombings and other attacks, and U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of increased violence ahead of the vote. The bloodshed continued Thursday, with bombings and gunfire from militants reported in several cities.
Voters will choose a National Assembly that will govern the country and draft a permanent constitution, and also choose provincial councils in the 18 provinces. Those living in the Kurdish self-governing region of the north will also choose a regional parliament.
To prevent major disruptions, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib has announced the curfew would be extended from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. starting today through Monday.
The government has already said it will close Baghdad International Airport and seal the nation's borders during the election period. Weapons will be banned.
Local officials have been authorized to add extra security measures in their own areas if they see fit. Many details of the overall security plan have been kept secret, officials say, to avoid tipping off the rebels.
At the same time, U.S. teams also have been out in villages and towns across Iraq encouraging people to vote. A respectable turnout in the face of insurgent threats would be seen as rejection of the insurgency by millions of rank-and-file Iraqis.
Some critics fear the Americans may risk playing into the hands of insurgent propagandists, who have dismissed the election as a fraud aimed at installing American-backed candidates into office.
Carina Perelli, one of the U.N. election experts involved in preparing for the vote, said Wednesday in New York that U.N. electoral advisers had repeatedly asked the United States to stay out of the election, so Iraqis do not come to think the vote is a U.S.-orchestrated process.
"The U.S. military has been extremely over-enthusiastic in trying to help out with these elections, and we have been basically saying that they should try to minimize their participation," Perelli said.
Perelli said she was disappointed the United Nations was unable to carry out voting seminars or other information programs inside Iraq, because of security concerns.
Late Wednesday, however, the United Nations issued a statement saying Perelli "misspoke" when she said the U.S. military had been "over-enthusiastic."
"She was trying to make a point about the great sensitivity among many Iraqis about the U.S. presence as the election approaches, but not to deny the obvious fact that the U.S. military, along with the Iraqi security forces, are playing a crucial role in providing security for Iraqi citizens who will be voting," the statement said.
"Ms. Perelli's role was to brief the press on the technical preparations for the election, and she did not intend to criticize the U.S. military's profile."
Despite concerns about the American presence, the escalating attacks against polling places, Iraqi police, U.S. forces and government officials have underscored the need for as much security as possible. Because the fledgling Iraqi forces lack the capabilities to secure the country on their own at this point, the only option is the multinational troops.
Hundreds of soldiers assigned to the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Brigade moved out Thursday from Camp Liberty, located near the airport, to take up new positions inside the city.
"We're hoping to enable the Iraqi security forces to be successful in defending the polling sites so their countrymen can vote," said Brig. Gen. John Basilica, the commander of the Lafayette, La.-based brigade. "It's a critical time for them."
Moving troops from their base on the western edge of the sprawling city to locations scattered throughout Baghdad will enable the Americans to respond more quickly if needed by Iraqi forces, he said.
On Wednesday, Basilica's troops got a taste of what may be in store. Insurgents fired mortar rounds at an Iraqi police station where a company of U.S. military police are based in the suburb of Saba Al-Boor, north of Baghdad. Four shells fell near the station, each one getting progressively closer to the Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers barricaded inside. One Iraqi girl was killed.