Iraqis' big issue: US exit plan
US troops are vital to security for Sunday's vote, but pressure is growing for them to leave.
The secrets of security plans for Iraq's landmark elections on Sunday are scrawled on a stack of 3x5-inch cards. At this fortified polling station, they're held by US Army 1st Lt. Thomas Visel as he reviews preparations with Iraqi policemen.Skip to next paragraph
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Each card has a map for every voting station in this southern Baghdad district, showing planned Iraqi sniper positions, concrete blast barriers, strings of concertina wire - and the number and role of the Iraqi police and soldiers who will run the election-day show on their own.
"You are looking for someone with especially bulky clothing," Lieutenant Visel, an Army infantryman from Uvalde, Texas, coaches his team. "Do a quick search, then get people into a safer area for another search, because an attack on the line could be as devastating as an attack on the election place."
Few scenes better illustrate the dilemma faced by US forces here. Their presence is vital to security - this election could not be held without them.
But the one thing every Iraqi agrees upon is that occupation should end soon. Though the United States is certain to play a major military role here for the near future, Iraqi politicians face intensifying pressure to speak out against its presence.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi got political mileage out of a recent Arabic statement on his party's website that called for a "conditions- based withdrawal" and talked of a timetable.
After US complaints, Mr. Allawi, who worked closely with the CIA in the 1990s and is the current US favorite, gave a slew of interviews to foreign media, saying there was no timetable, and telling the BBC it was "premature" to talk about a pullout.
"He's got two messages that verge on the contradictory," says a Western diplomat. "He doesn't want to give the impression ... that he wants to get rid of [US-led forces]. But his message to Iraqis is that, 'we have a plan' to do so."
"Iraqis are struggling with exactly the same paradox," adds the diplomat. "They want the multinational forces to leave, but ask them if they want them to leave tomorrow, and they say 'no.' "
Getting that balance right is not easy, and has ramifications that reach from this school polling station in downtown Baghdad to UN headquarters in New York.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's office clarified a comment from its top election official in Iraq that the US military was "overenthusiastic in wanting to help."
The comments meant to highlight the "great sensitivity among many Iraqis about the US presence as the election approaches," the statement explained, "but not to deny the obvious fact that the US military ... are playing a crucial role in providing security."
The first step towards more Iraqi control may well be Sunday's election. As Visel talks tactics, the cop nods in agreement, affirms that his crew will not leave their posts during the three-day election period, and raises concerns about his snipers being targeted accidentally by US helicopters.
Iraqi forces and civilians have been killed or hassled too frequently by US forces - one reason that pressure for a US withdrawal is likely to grow after the vote.
"I hate occupation as much as anyone,'' says Adnan al-Junabi, a secular Sunni Arab minister in the interim government and a close confidante of Mr. Allawi.
He almost quit his post two weeks ago after briefly being handcuffed and arrested by US forces at a checkpoint outside the interim government's offices in the US-patrolled Green Zone.
"This is what we have to live and work with. How can we be held responsible when the Americans hold most of the authority?"