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Iraq election: Will sectarian divisions limit turnout?

A week before the Iraq election, sectarian divisions and conspiracy theories are running wild and could limit turnout.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / February 26, 2010

Iraqi men walk past a campaign poster depicting Mariam al-Rayis, a candidate from the Shiite-led Iraqi National Coalition, center left, and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, in Baghdad, Friday. Iraq's national election is set for March 7.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad

A little over a week before the Iraq election, the country is a cauldron of political attacks, sectarian divisions, and conspiracy theories that could limit the turnout in the country’s most important national elections to date.

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But while the threat of major attacks and the reality of equally lethal minor ones has dampened public campaigning, it has not derailed preparations by political parties and election officials for a March 7 vote seen as crucial to stability.

Around Baghdad, security concerns have limited large public events mostly to the Shiite enclave of Sadr City.Apart from the airwaves and e-mail campaigns, the most visible signs of campaigning are a forest of election posters sprouting on lampposts and traffic circles after miles of concrete blast barriers were placed off-limits by a ban on glue.

Along an overpass in central Baghdad, hundreds of images of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exhorting building and construction line a road passing by the gaping windows of the Finance Ministry. The building was heavily damaged after it was hit by a suicide truck bomb that was the first in a wave of attacks in August.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that have since killed hundreds of Iraqis, has threatened, through one of its affiliated groups, more violence aimed at disrupting the elections.

As a security measure, Iraq’s airports and border crossings will be closed, a car ban put in place, and a four-day government holiday declared around the polling day.

The US military, banned from going near the polling sites, is helping to place concrete blast walls around some of the 10,000 polling stations and bringing in canine explosive detection teams. The dogs are intended to compensate for a mainstay of Iraqi explosive detection found to be useless after being purchased under an $85 million contract with a private British company now being investigated for fraud. Many say the company's detectors don't work.

Iraqi security vehicles roam the main roads carrying police and soldiers with their AK-47s drawn. All leave has been canceled for Iraqi security forces.
“We are on high alert,” says federal police officer Ali Khalid, using one of the suspect explosive detectors at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.

Explaining that the wandlike device was powered by the electromagnetic energy in his body and the ground, he says he believes it is about 65 percent accurate, but only for about three hours at a time.

“A lot of times it finds teeth fillings or perfume, but it also finds weapons,” he says.

Increase in assassinations

There have been at least two assassinations of political candidates and US and Iraqi officials report an increase in assassinations of mid-level Iraqi police officers. The political violence is layered with common crime and gang-related violence, often difficult to distinguish or fully verify.

The savage killing and mutilation of an Iraqi family south of Baghdad this week appeared to be money-related rather than politically motivated, according to US officials familiar with the interrogation reports of the suspects. A low-profile political candidate connected to the controversial Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi had said the killings were retaliation for the father of the family hanging campaign posters for him.

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