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An Election Day That Could Be a Close Call

Times Staff Writer

At the former Baath Party headquarters known as the Blue Dome, everything was set for candidates in the upcoming elections to come in and tape political ads for local TV.

The cameraman trained his viewfinder on the far end of a conference table where dusty plastic roses in yellow and pink served as decorative props. But recording the campaign spots this recent morning didn’t take long.

Only three people showed up.

In many ways, Baqubah and the surrounding area in Diyala province exemplify the challenges facing Iraqis and U.S. troops in the campaign for the Jan. 30 elections. A boycott here in central Iraq in the area known as the Sunni Triangle could undermine the elections. Some Sunni Muslim politicians say that continued violence, especially in the central and northern parts of the country, will make it difficult to hold a fair election. Recently, the Bush administration began a major effort to coax Sunnis to vote.

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On the ground, U.S. commanders have to solve a formidable logistical puzzle: moving many tons of security barriers throughout a province the size of New Jersey.

At the same time, it can’t be obvious that they have a hand in the elections.

“It’s the hardest problem we’ve had here,” said Army Maj. Kreg Schnell, the intelligence officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. Land mines and booby traps “are bad -- they kill a lot of people. But an election going bad” -- he shook his head -- “that’s really bad.”

In the last few weeks, insurgents have stepped up their attacks in this city about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, primarily targeting local politicians and Iraqi security forces.

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U.S. commanders have also stepped up raids: 45 in December compared with five in August.

Ambushes have been a particular problem. On Tuesday, five Iraqi national guardsmen and a civilian were killed by a suicide car bomber near downtown. Also on that day, gunmen assassinated Capt. Naem Muhanad Abdullah, an Iraqi police commander. Since October, about a dozen local politicians, including a mayor and two deputy governors, have been assassinated in and around Baqubah.

Baqubah police said gunmen killed two members of the Diyala governing council in separate incidents Saturday. One council member, Nawfal Abdul Hussein Shimari, 40, was killed along with his 25-year-old brother, Faris, as they left their office in the city center, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Ali Haddawi, another council member, was killed in a drive-by shooting on a main road in the province, the police said.

Many Iraqis worry the elections will spur even more violence.

“We are fearful,” said one Iraqi woman. “Maybe because of the election, it will be worse.”

On this morning at the Blue Dome, Army Maj. Teresa Wolfgang acknowledged that the turnout was disappointing: three candidates from 13 regional coalitions vying for 41 seats in a province with an estimated population of 1.5 million people.

However Wolfgang, who oversees the 415th Civil Affairs Company, said she hoped that once word got out about the TV spots, more candidates would come in to tape their messages.

“They’ll want to see what happens with these ads -- if people get killed or not,” she said.

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Throughout Baqubah and its southern suburb of Buhriz, insurgent groups are distributing leaflets that promise death to those who vote. Freshly painted graffiti spell out “Praise Be Fallouja” -- the insurgent stronghold recaptured in November -- and “Join the Jihad.”

All of this leaves Schnell, the intelligence officer, to ponder whether he would vote if he were an Iraqi.

“I think I would,” he said. “But I don’t live here.”

There are an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters in Diyala province. About 250 potential polling places have been chosen, but their locations have been kept secret to protect them from attack.

In a few weeks, the sites will be identified. Concrete barriers, ballot boxes, ballots and special ink will have to be moved before election day. On the ground, that means a steep increase in traffic and fuel demand.

U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces will transport the protective barriers from military bases to the polling stations, most of them schools.

“There’s some psychological advantage to that,” said Schnell. Even if it’s a school holiday, “you’re hoping terrorists won’t go after schools.”

In some cases, soldiers can fortify the sites in advance. In other cases, it will be “one night of mad activity,” Schnell said.

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Manufactured locally, the security barriers alone will cost more than $1 million. Add fuel and manpower, and the security measures are costing several million dollars just in the province of Diyala. As many as 2,000 barriers and 10,000 rolls of concertina wire will have to be transported on dirt roads through hostile neighborhoods.

“It’s a lot to move,” said Army Capt. Mike James, logistics officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

Elsewhere on Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the Army base here, supplies are coming in. Charlie Company has received two additional ambulances, four more medics and a surgeon in anticipation of election-related violence.

“The election is one of the biggest things we’ll do here,” James said. “It’s a logistical challenge to make it safe, make it secure and get as many [Iraqis] as involved as possible.”

Keeping the U.S. role to a minimum is also important. “We’re just the summer help,” he said.

Americans are wary of being seen handling ballots, ballot boxes, locks and ink. An Australian company will handle the transport of election materials.

In both the balloting for 275 seats in a transitional Iraqi national assembly and in provincial elections for 41 seats on the governing council, voters will choose between slates of candidates; they will not be voting for individuals.

Literacy in Iraq is just over 40%, and party symbols have been added to the ballots for those who can’t read. Many people are expected to vote as a family, and at the polling places in this province, voters probably won’t have the privacy of voting booths.

Wolfgang recently met with several local sheiks. One of them, she recalled, had asked if he could vote for his wife. The others laughed, she said. To them, it was a given.

Despite a requirement that one-third of the candidates be women, Iraqi women are not expected to vote in large numbers here.

At the entrance to the Blue Dome, handguns were hanging like keys on a board of nails. Visitors checked their weapons, getting a little paper receipt in exchange. A poster in the rotunda promised “A New Horizon.”

Muayed Sami, editor in chief of a new local newspaper, Al Parlaman, observed the taping of the political candidates.

“We used to do slogans with very little content,” he said. “Now, two minutes is not enough to say anything.”

Still, the three who showed up had enough time to deliver their messages. Candidates from the Communist Party and the Elites of Diyala explained their parties’ platforms -- improving local infrastructure and irrigation, an interpreter said. The third candidate, from the Socialist Arab Movement, read from a script as U.S. soldiers watched him exercise his right to free speech: “No to the American occupation,” he told the camera.


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