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.

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?"

Already a timetable?

One of the major factors behind the rejection of the elections by large parts of Iraq's Sunni Arab majority is the absence of a schedule for a US departure. Yet on the face of it, there already is a timetable for US withdrawal.

UN Security Council Resolution 1546, which provides the legal umbrella for the US-led military presence in Iraq, stipulates "that this mandate shall expire upon the completion of the political process ... and declares that it will terminate this mandate earlier if requested by the Government of Iraq."

The political process referred to is the passing of a new constitution and the electing of the new government, which are supposed to happen by the end of 2005.

"Many of the people opposed to this election have demanded a timetable for US forces to leave - but they don't seem to know that there already is a timetable,'' says Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni Arab politician who has tried to encourage Sunni participation in Sunday's election and is heading his own list of candidates.

"What we wanted from the Americans is a clear statement to the effect that they would abide fully by the resolution,'' he says. "But they refused to do so, so it seems the suspicions of the people have some basis in fact."

Such emerging attitudes are making one of the hoped-for US outcomes of the war - an enduring US military presence here - look increasingly unlikely.

One of the strategic arguments for invading Iraq was that it would lead to a US-friendly democracy that would allow America to replace its military presence in Saudi Arabia - a touchy issue because of the country's position as the cradle of Islam - with one in Iraq that would allow America to keep shaping the regional balance of power. Across the Iraqi political spectrum, almost everyone agrees that long-term bases here could prove destabilizing.

But in the short term, US officials expect a new government - which is likely to be under fire from Day 1 - will not demand a fast pullout.

"I think the new government is going to look at all the problems, look into the abyss, and this is not going to be a problem,'' says a senior US diplomat.

That reliance couldn't be clearer at this school, where concrete barriers block all vehicle entry for 300 feet on all sides.

"We've got to mold the battlefield," says Capt. T.J. Foley. "We're putting a lot on them at once. This [plan for election day] needs to evolve - they will get it all together on the day."

Meticulous preparation

Captain Foley, a US Army infantry officer from Nashville, Tenn., asks the police commander how many assault rifles need to be issued to his units here, and checks the number of rounds each will carry in his pistol. Visel takes careful notes on the map cards.

Foley advises on layout and positioning, using a past incident as a warning: Three national guardsmen were in a cluster, Foley recalls, when a suicide bomber "strolled right up to them, leaving body parts all over the place."

"This is their election. We will be on the periphery. They have enough people for this," says Foley.

Still, no one knows the dangers that could await more than police Col. Salman Karim. Iraqi police have been frequent targets of insurgents.

"We have never had an election like this in our lives. It needs more time [to create democracy]-it's like building a house, it takes time," says Colonel Karim.

Despite the risks, the police in all his units have so far showed up for work. "They have to know," he says, "that they may die, and have to be ready."

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