Despite the bombings, summary executions, and near daily reports of American troops killed in action, the countdown has begun toward true democracy in Iraq. In the days and hours prior that country’s national elections, the insurgents are ramping up sporadic albeit deadly attacks in what U.S. military commanders see as futile attempts to derail Iraq’s destiny. Elections will in fact be held. Coalition troops will be deployed in great strength. But the size of the turnout among Iraq’s 14.27 million registered voters remains to be seen.
On Sunday morning, just after sunrise (7:00 A.M. Baghdad time–Saturday, 11:00 P.M EST in the U.S.), Iraqi voters will begin casting ballots for a single-house, 275-seat Iraqi national assembly. Of the between 12 and 275 candidates proffered by each of the over-100 parties (7,471 candidates total), every third candidate on the ballot must by law be a woman. Elections for provincial councils and for a special autonomous Kurdish parliament also will be held. Voting will end at sunset.
The national assembly will be a transitional body. Its first and primary order of business will be to debate, write, and ultimately approve a national constitution. This will set the stage for elections in December 2005 that will elect a new national government within the framework of the new constitution.
Not surprising, Sunday’s elections are anathema to the various anti-Iraq forces and followers of al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi who vow to “kill those who dare to vote.” But the right to vote is proving to be near–and–dear to the ordinary Iraqi citizen.
“We’re seeing an increase in the interest in both the elections and voting procedures,” Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force near the Ramadi-Fallujah area, tells NRO.
Unfortunately, there is a cost to that interest.
“Assassinations are being conducted with notes left behind on bodies to discourage participation [in the elections] by others,” says Wilson. “Kidnappings of relatives of key government officials, who are held hostage until the individual meets insurgent demands–usually, stepping down from their position and promising not to work with the Interim Iraqi Government/Multi-National Forces. Lists posted in public places identifying people deemed by the insurgents to be cooperating with the IIG/MNF, and accusing them of being traitors. Attacks conducted on key government facilities. Threatening phone calls to individuals, or their relatives, warning them of the consequences of working with the IIG/MNF. Beatings and murders of contractors working for the IIG/MNF.”
First Lieutenant Nathan J. Braden with the 1st Marine Division agrees. “One of their scare tactics is to threaten to kill a man’s wife and children if he does not comply with their wishes,” he says, adding the bad guys are “aware” that elections are the harbinger of their ultimate defeat. “It’s no secret that there are individuals and various groups in Iraq that are scared to death of these elections. Consequently, they are ramping up their intimidation tactics and attacks as the election date approaches.”
And Iraqi and U.S. forces are stiffening their defenses.
On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers and policemen will be out in force and will take the lead in voter security (Iraqi army and police forces total 130,000 men). U.S. ground units will be positioned along side streets and in predetermined staging areas (U.S. military personnel in Iraq total 150,000). American Marines and soldiers will conduct foot and vehicle patrols, but will stay out of view of polling stations unless needed and requested by election officials.
“Simply put, the Iraqis will be up front and the Marines will be waiting in the wings,” Capt. Carrie Batson, a public-affairs officer with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), says. “We’re calling it a position of ‘reassurance.’”
In addition to force deployment, a number of additional security measures have been implemented. Authorities plan to shutdown most of the country for the entire weekend. Cell and satellite phone services will be cut from Saturday through Monday. Uniformed troops will have freedom of movement, but civilian travel between provinces will be restricted, and general movement within the provinces will be limited except to and from the polls.
“No driving will be allowed during the elections, no loitering will be allowed, and no Iraqi security force member will be allowed to carry a weapon unless in uniform,” says Batson. “There will be a curfew from 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. We’ve been emplacing concrete barriers at the polling sites to improve force protection, and we’ve given the Iraqi security forces sand bags and concertina wire to use as another force protection measure.”
But the insurgents will continue probing for weaknesses in security, and no defense in a combat theater is ever airtight. In recent days, car-bombings near headquarters buildings, attacks on a handful of the 5,220 existing polling stations (9,000 were originally planned), and middle-of-the-street executions of policemen and election officials have garnered most of the terrorist-sought media attention. However, residential neighborhoods and other areas where children are known to play have also been the targets of terror bombings and mortar attacks.
Criminal intimidation is difficult to combat. Security forces are successful only if fed solid intelligence and are quick to respond. U.S. Marines and soldiers are masters of the latter, but the question remains: Will U.S.-trained Iraqi forces soon be capable of conducting independent operations and defending their countrymen without U.S. military support? Opinions are mixed: Opponents of President George W. Bush say, “no.” Bush’s supporters and many of the politically neutral pundits are not sure. Senior military commanders continue to express cautious optimism, while junior and field-grade military officers on the ground are quick to say, “yes.”
Capt David Nevers, a spokesman for the 24th MEU, points to a marginally reported clash that took place in mid-December as one of countless examples. “Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen fought off an attack by some 30 insurgents on a police station near Mahmudiyah,” he says. “The insurgents used mortars, rockets, small arms, even a [heavy] machine gun.”
Before it was over, the fighting devolved into a grisly hand-to-hand to struggle. “One Iraqi policeman got his hand chopped off with a machete,” says Nevers.
Reinforcing U.S. Marines raced to the fight, but once on-scene realized they weren’t needed. After repelling the attack, the Iraqis swept the area, capturing 34 suspected guerrillas.
According to Nevers, more often than not, Iraqi civilians–men, women, and children–are reporting suspicious activities that are either filling holes in previously gathered intelligence or providing new information which is then acted upon by U.S. and Iraqi troops.
A new phenomenon, he says, is the increasing number of Iraqis who are publicly defying the insurgents.
“There was a report January 21 on the Iraqi TV channel, Al-Sharqiya, which featured local Iraqis being asked about the upcoming elections,” says Nevers. “Locals interviewed in northern Babil Province not only were shrugging off the insurgent-driven fear and intimidation, they threatened to kill any insurgents attempting to interfere with their ability to vote. Polls have shown consistently for months that upwards of 80 percent of Iraqis intend to vote.”
But the danger to civilians is real, and fear will indeed be a factor on Sunday.
“[We are seeing] a mixed bag of reactions based on the vagaries of the individual provinces,” says Lt. Col. Wilson. “In Anbar, the people in heavy population centers are fearful from the intimidation by insurgents. In Najaf and Karbala, the vast majority of the population is eager to vote. Their concerns center around security on Election Day.”
Major Mike J. Lindemann, an intelligence officer with the 11th MEU near Najaf has voiced concerns about “the possibility of some combination of foreign fighters or former regime extremists attempting to disrupt elections” with attacks against the Shiite population.
“There have been several attacks by various Sunni extremists against Shia civilians and religious figures in adjacent regions, and a few such attacks in the previous month within Najaf and Karbala,” he says. “While these groups face a variety of greater challenges operating in Najaf and Karbala than elsewhere, there are a variety of factors that make these areas desirable targets for them. There are exceptions to every generalization, but overall the majority of Najaf and Karbala citizens will attempt to vote and have a desire to do so. Some of the more rural people who are much more focused on daily survival are less concerned with voting, but many of them will still do so in adherence to the Sistani fatwa.” (Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani has issued a fatwa instructing his Shiite followers to participate in the elections.)
Despite fears of retribution from the likes of Al Zarqawi, recent public opinion polls corroborate Nevers’ contention that the vast majority of Iraq’s eligible voters will cast ballots on Sunday. “All indications are that the Iraqi people are determined to take advantage of this great moment in their history,” Nevers says. “For those if us who can see it, the tide is turning.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.