Iraq battens down for vote

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

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.

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.

"Nobody is in the game of predicting the number of attacks," says a Western diplomat, who expressed mild surprise that, despite Monday's car bombing in Baghdad, incidents of violence have been relatively low in recent days.

The diplomat points to three likely reasons: Fallujah, the Sunni Triangle city that was retaken by US troops in November, is no longer an insurgent bastion; Iraq's security forces are becoming more numerous and capable; and Iraqi, US, and British security and military agencies are working more closely together.

The diplomat says that in recent months US-led and Iraqi forces have stepped up their information sharing, making sure that when a policeman in one city has useful information about an insurgent, it's passed to US or Iraqi forces that can do something about it.

Car bomb mastermind?

Monday Prime Minister Allawi's office announced the arrest of a man described as one of the country's deadliest car-bomb builders and an ally of Zarqawi. The Iraqi government separately announced the arrest of two other alleged members of Zarqawi's network.

The government said Sami Mohammed Ali Said al-Jaaf was arrested on Jan. 15, and while in custody has confessed to either building car bombs or directing 32 different attacks between August 2003 and earlier this month. The government said that his confession accounts for about 75 percent of the car bombs in Baghdad. But there have been at least eight in the city since his arrest.

"Al-Zarqawi allegedly instructed [him] to bomb election sites to instill fear in the population so Iraqis would not vote," said Thair Al-Nakib, Allawi's spokesman, in the statement. "While attacks against innocent civilians will likely occur in the upcoming days, the [interim government] and Multi-National Forces have increased security throughout Iraq to diminish al-Zarqawi's capabilities to attack Iraqis who choose to vote for their future."

Still, fear is hard to dispel. The doctor quoted above has, like many others among the professional classes, sent his family out of the country. But if threatened by the insurgents, "I'll be gone in 24 hours," he says. "Why take a chance?"

One of the doctor's colleagues received such a call, with a warning to leave Iraq within 72 hours. The caller told the man, "I can't control the people around me." He left Iraq.

Another friend of the doctor received a similar warning, but stayed on, carrying a cocked pistol in his pocket. He was killed with three bullets on Christmas Day, while driving to pick up his daughters from college. His wife and a student, also in the car, were untouched.

"It was very precise," says the doctor. "Of course [the intimidation] is working. They are using a very good strategy of putting sticks in the wheel."

But across Baghdad, every effort is being made to reassure voters. At one downtown school that will serve as a polling center, concrete blocks were delivered a month ago to seal off the street, and local residents are already acting as impromptu guards to keep cars away.

"Who isn't afraid of the car bombs,'' asks Riad Muhammad, a burly father of two who rushed out of the factory where he was moving boxes to confront two strangers. "I worry the whole time the kids are out of my sight. But we'll all come down to vote on the 30th, and then rush back home and stay there."

Abdul Razak Mohammed, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Baghdad's Shiite Khadamiya district, says he's both afraid and determined to vote because he feels it's the best chance he has to bring change to Iraq after what he calls a lifetime of suffering under Hussein. He uses a popular proverb to make his point.

"When a man is soaking wet,'' he says, "he's no longer afraid to go out in the rain."

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