Iraq Gearing Up for Lockdown on Election Day

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Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

A policeman stands guard at a polling station in Baghdad. Iraq will deploy thousands of security forces for Saturday's provincial elections

The security measures that Iraqi authorities are undertaking for Saturday's provincial elections are extreme even by the standards of a war-battered country all too familiar with checkpoints, mazes of blast walls and periodic road closures. Iraqi authorities are orchestrating what amounts to a nationwide lockdown for the coming vote, which many Iraqi and U.S. officials view as a key test of both the country's security forces and the durability of the reduced levels of violence in Iraq. On election day, Iraq plans to seal its borders, close Baghdad International Airport and ban all but specially licensed vehicles from moving in downtown areas across the country.

"Movement is going to be stopped in the center of the cities," said Major General Aiden Khaled Qadir at a press conference. Qadir, who is overseeing election security efforts, sounded confident about the preparations. "We have more than we need of numbers of forces. We also have forces to protect the candidates, the voters, the centers." (Read "How Soon Is Too Soon to Leave Iraq?")

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers will be on the streets on Saturday as up to 15 million registered voters head to the polls, mostly on foot, to cast ballots in what will decide a new makeup for 14 of Iraq's 18 provincial councils. Iraqi and U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that insurgents and militia elements may stage attacks on election day. With the vehicle ban, suicide bombers on foot and rocket or mortar fire pose the biggest threats. But so far there has been little sign that Iraq's militants are organizing a bloody show of force. The largest Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is essentially dormant these days. And Sunni insurgent elements in previously volatile areas such as Anbar and Diyala provinces appear to be, by and large, staying their hand in the expectation that sympathetic Sunni politicians — who boycotted the last provincial election, in 2005 — will take a number of seats from Kurdish and Shi'ite rivals and potentially reshape the political map in their favor. (Read "As Iraqi Elections Loom, al-Sadr's Political Clout Fades.")

To be sure, a number of militant rejectionists remain at large in Iraq. On Tuesday, attackers torched a polling station near the city of Fallujah in Anbar province. And sporadic bombings persist in Baghdad, Mosul and Diyala province. But the fear of carnage that has surrounded past elections and mass public gatherings like the regular Shi'ite pilgrimages is low.(See TIME's photo-essay "Showdown in Fallujah.")

With a huge security operation in place, Iraqi officials have increasingly focused on more mundane election problems such as fraud and alleged violations of campaign rules ahead of balloting. Judge Kassem al-Boudi, spokesman for the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, said 180 complaints were already registered. "You can imagine with any elections happening in the world, you should expect a number of violations," said al-Boudi, who spoke to reporters in Baghdad along with Qadir. "And we are sure that we are going to have more."

See TIME's photo-essay "Life Returns to Iraq's Streets."