The Security Question

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Security remains the major obstacle to holding a credible election on January 30, because of the insurgency's unchecked ability to wreak havoc at the polls. The goal of the insurgents is to keep voter turnout as low as possible, in order to deny the election legitimacy. U.S. and Iraqi leaders have already acknowledged that voting will not be possible for many of the inhabitants of four Iraqi provinces — Anbar, Nineveh, Salahdin and Baghdad — which, between them, are home to upward of 40 percent of the population. Insurgent attacks have forced the resignation of electoral workers in Anbar and Nineveh, and plans to register voters have been scrapped in favor of allowing them to register and vote on the same day. Polling booths will be opened in those provinces, but fewer of them, and their locations will only be revealed at the last minute to prevent insurgents planning attacks.

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The areas where the insurgents are expected to be most effective in keeping would-be voters from going to the polls will be their Sunni strongholds in the provinces named above, including the capital, Baghdad. But they have also shown considerable ability to strike far from their home turf, through terror strikes in Najaf, Karbala, Hilla and other Shiite population centers as far south as Basra. In those areas, however, their threat will be countered by the strong sense among the long-marginalized Shiites of the election as an opportunity to claim the power of the majority, and the edict by their supreme spiritual authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani proclaiming voting a religious duty.

The U.S. and Iraqi interim governments are committed to providing security to voters going the polls. The U.S. had hoped to keep its own troops away from the polling stations, both to avoid making them targets and because their presence there would cast an unwelcome American shadow over the proceedings in the eyes of many Iraqi voters. Iraqi security forces will provide immediate security around most polling stations, with U.S. forces in reserve to deal with any contingencies. The government has adopted draconian measures to create a secure environment, including curfews and banning all unauthorized vehicles from the roads in order to deny insurgents freedom of movement. The borders and Baghdad's airport will also be closed for three days. But in areas where would-be voters are fearful of insurgent attacks, the bloody track record of the past three months may be enough to deter them from going out to test the effectiveness of the new security measures.