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Iraq battens down for vote

Nightly curfews are planned and TV ads are now encouraging Iraqis to assert their rights on Sunday.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2005



BAGHDAD

A slew of new security measures designed to protect Iraqi voters from insurgent attacks are being set up as Iraq counts down to Sunday's election. And Monday, Iraqi officials trumpeted the capture of a man who they say confessed to building or directing 32 car bombs since August 2003.

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But the memory of Saddam Hussein's rule by fear is refreshed daily by dozens of new atrocities. That leaves many Iraqis still looking over their shoulders at the shadows of the past, and making participation in the election a test of both their courage and their hope.

"Kidnapping is still here, and it's horrible, but the new thing is intimidation," says an Iraqi doctor who has sent his family out of the country during the election runup. He has seen many of his colleagues threatened, kidnapped, and killed. "They know your weaknesses."

The US and its Iraqi allies are working hard to protect the process - and hope the election will prove a turning point against the insurgency. One ad run by the government on local and Arab satellite television shows how they want to turn the tables. Two masked gunmen confront a woman on her way to vote, who stares back as the ranks of voters swell behind her, and the insurgents slink off.

But while many Iraqis are enthusiastic about voting, especially the country's majority Shiite Arabs and Kurds in the north, fear can be just a phone call away.

Last week, an acquaintance of a Monitor reporter was chatting on a Baghdad street, when he was interrupted by the jangle of his cellphone. The smile faded and his posture slumped. His brother-in-law was found in a city morgue, along with nine other security officers.

The Iraqi national guardsman had been abducted by masked men the night before near his home in the volatile Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad, where insurgents mingle with oil smugglers.

A brand of fear

At the morgue, the guardsman's calf is branded with a mark designed to send fear beyond his immediate friends and family: the sign of Mohammed's army, a group that has executed dozens in recent months. The Interior Ministry say it is run by former members of Mr. Hussein's feared internal security service.

"Mohammed's army means the Baathists," says the man, a Sunni Arab who until recently had expected to vote in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections, but now says he probably won't. "If I have to vote in my neighborhood, there are too many watchers. Who's going to protect my family after the election?" he asks.

This climate is the reason that US officials say anything above 50 percent voter turnout for the election will be considered a success, though such transitional democratic elections usually have a turnout of 70 percent or more.

On Sunday, the interim government said all Iraqi security forces have been placed on high alert and will be on duty the day of the poll, Jan. 29-31 have been declared national holidays, a nationwide curfew between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. will be enforced those three days, the borders will be closed, and most civilian vehicle travel will be banned.

That last is designed to make car-bomb attacks - like the one that hit Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party headquarters Monday - much harder. Responsibility for that attack, which wounded about 10 policemen, was claimed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an Internet statement.

In an audiotape released Sunday, Mr. Zarqawi said he and his followers were declaring "fierce war on this evil principal of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology." Zarqawi belongs to a radical fringe within the strict Salafi branch of Sunni Islam that sees democracy as unholy. He says allowing people to make choices about how they are governed usurps God's authority.

Iraq is now bracing for an onslaught of fresh attacks surrounding the polls, like the one Sunday that hit a polling center in Hillah. But there are some signs that extreme security measures and improved intelligence work are yielding fruit.

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