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Fighting to the Polls in Mosul

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Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning, a stream of armored vehicles brought American and Albanian soldiers here to lock down the Mosul airfield.

A few hours later, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte and top American military commanders Gen. George W. Casey and Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz arrived in a swarm of helicopters to meet with Iraqi election officials. Introductions didn’t take long. The commission overseeing elections in Iraq’s third-largest city numbers two people.

Although U.S. officials insist elections will take place, there are significant hurdles to overcome before the Jan. 30 poll. Mosul, with 1.8 million residents, has become so volatile that American soldiers who work on community projects no longer maintain contact with the local population.

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On city streets, no posters or fliers advertise the election, but leaflets threaten beheadings for those who vote.

The entire election staff resigned last month, and the local government has two weeks left to recruit and train 800 workers needed at polling sites throughout the province.

“We’re starting from scratch,” said Maj. Tony Cruz of the 426 Civil Affairs Battalion.

Mosul, considered a model city early in the U.S.-led occupation, has become a high-stakes battleground for insurgents intent on preventing the vote and American officials determined to ensure that it takes place. The credibility of the entire election could be threatened if violence prevents large numbers of voters here and in a neighboring province that includes Fallouja from casting ballots.

Some residents have already declared that they will remain at home on election day.

“To be honest, my life is more important to me than the elections,” said Nabil Noorildeen, a 28-year-old teacher. “The government is not capable of providing security for its citizens so that they could vote at the ballot centers.”

Americans who command 150,000 troops in Iraq have promised “aggressive action” to ensure the election goes ahead in two provinces of “significant concern”: Nineveh, which includes Mosul, and Al Anbar, its neighbor.

Mosul, located near large oil reserves, is the capital of Nineveh province, which borders Syria.

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The city itself is on the border between Kurdish-controlled areas to the north and the rest of the country, dominated by Arabs. Sunni Muslims make up about half the city’s population.

Recently, insurgents have launched attacks from Mosul mosques. Three leading Kurdish politicians were slain Thursday in a drive-by shooting, and a U.S. soldier was killed in a separate incident.

Violence has escalated since the assassination of the provincial governor in July. After a major battle in Fallouja in November, U.S. commanders say, insurgents sought refuge in Baghdad and Mosul.

That month there were uprisings in Mosul, and key sites, including a police station, were overrun. Thousands of Iraqi police officers deserted.

In late December, a suicide bomber killed 15 U.S. soldiers and seven Iraqi police officers in a mess hall at a military base near here. The attack was the deadliest on an American installation in Iraq.

American military commanders, who have been trying to “win hearts and minds” here, suffered a major setback last week when a U.S. warplane bombed the wrong house in Aitha, about 30 miles south of Mosul, killing as many as 14 people. The incident stoked anti-American sentiment.

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Last year, the civil affairs unit employed about 20 local interpreters. But after death threats and intimidation, only five remain.

Some soldiers say attacks against them have declined slightly in the last two weeks. In late December, the U.S. military captured two people whom it identified as key members of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi’s network. The men had been spearheading attacks in the city, military officials said.

Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul, has referred to the two local election officials, Khaled Kazer and Ahmed Ali, as the most important people in the province because they will coordinate the voter drive and oversee elections.

At the airport meeting, Kazer and Ali, former soldiers in their late 20s, spoke at length to the U.S. generals and officials. Starting today, local media will feature get-out-the-vote ads and recruitment drives for election workers, said Kazer, whose wife is also involved in the election effort.

Kazer showed a folder containing photocopies of posters that were to go up around Mosul.

“Voting betters the future,” read one. Another declared, “One voice is richer than gold.”

Cruz, the civil affairs officer and a financial advisor from West Hills, said many residents here didn’t know much about the balloting, in which voters will elect slates of candidates to a national parliament that in turn will elect a president and prime minister.

“A lot of people here think they’re voting for president, “ he said.

Abdul Waheed Khalil, 25, said he felt unacquainted with particular slates and candidates, but because clerics had encouraged Shiites to participate, he would vote even “if it cost me my life.”

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But Noorildeen, an Arab Sunni, was skeptical. “I got acquainted through the media with some of the candidates in Baghdad but not in Mosul, and I don’t think there will be elections in Mosul because I still haven’t seen any posters, pamphlets or even interviews, which is what is happening in the rest of the provinces.”

In November, insurgents torched voter registration materials stored in a warehouse. But new supplies are coming, Cruz said. “Mosul has become the main effort,” he said. “Elections will happen.”

Duraid Kashmoula, governor of Nineveh, has estimated that as many as 50% of the registered voters in Mosul and 80% in the outlying areas will vote.

Kazer is not as optimistic, estimating 40% and 70% participation, respectively.

The predictions, however, are based on anecdotal evidence.

“Even the governor will talk to people that he’s comfortable with, so it’s biased,” Cruz said. “There’s no way to gauge it.”

One U.S. group, the International Republican Institute, has conducted surveys on how Iraqis feel about their future, but its latest poll excluded Mosul for security reasons.

“Because we are one of the worst provinces, it’d be easy to throw in the towel,” Cruz said. But “if the elections fail, the coalition’s mission will have failed.”

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On a recent evening, around 10 p.m., Cruz, Kazer and Ali sat in a compound that once belonged to Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein. A map of the province was spread on the table. The trio looked bleary-eyed.

Then Kazer’s cellphone rang. It was a friend, saying he was signing up as an election worker.

Kazer beamed. The workforce had just increased by a third.

Special correspondent Roaa Ahmed contributed to this report.

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