Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 6 News List

While Iraqi elections draw near, only security matters

AFP , YUSUFIYAH, IRAQ

An old man sits in a shabby one-story building in a town in Iraq's "triangle of death." This will be a polling station in landmark elections planned for next month, but it hasn't yet received voter registration cards, and US commanders are still figuring out how to make such booths safe without scaring off voters.

"They have told us nothing yet about registration. I don't know when we will get the registration cards," said the man, who preferred not to have his name mentioned because of fears he might be killed by insurgents.

A handful of men on Monday stood outside what will be the polling station in Yusufiyah if Iraq's first free and multiparty elections in half a century go ahead as planned on Jan. 30.

"I will vote if I feel safe," said one, who gave his name as Mohammed and said he was a Sunni. Sunnis make up about 60 percent of the population in this town that lies just 40km south of Baghdad.

Making voters like Mohammed feel secure is crucial to the success of the elections, which many Iraqi politicians are saying should be postponed because of the unrest that continues to plague the country a year and a half after Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Coalition forces are keen that the elections should be seen as a thoroughly Iraqi process, with foreign troops keeping a discreet distance from the voting centers.

"I'd like to keep Americans away from the booths themselves," said Major Morgan Mann, the commander of the 200-strong Marine unit in Yusufiyah.

Iraqi National Guards and police will man the booths, with US forces staying at a distance of some 500m, he said, outlining a model likely to be followed across the country.

But security forces must somehow make voters feel safe without unrolling such a heavy security apparatus that might make many decide the risk was too great, added Mann, who believes violence will spike in the run-up to the vote.

Voters began registering across the country on Nov. 1 in hundreds of centres where Iraqi families come to get their monthly rations of rice, sugar, cooking oil, and tea.

But the process has been delayed in this area which was a no-go zone notorious for kidnappings and deadly attacks until a couple of months ago when US Marines set up a number of forward bases.

In Yusufiyah, Sunni Muslim thugs were abducting Shiites in the streets and killing them, locals say.

But after major US-led assaults in November to restore government control in the insurgent bastions of Fallujah and Mosul ahead of the elections, the focus turned to the "triangle of death."

Mortar and roadside bomb attacks continue in the region, and water and electricty supplies are at best erratic, but life is returning to some semblance of normality as US Marines maintain a highly visible presence.

Yusufiyah still resembles a battle zone, with Marines holed up in a heavily-fortified base in an abandoned school between the police station and the town hall, both now bombed-out ruins.

But children are back in school in this town of some 40,000 people, a health clinic has reopened and business is picking up at the souk, or market.

At the town's Shiite mosque, the imam's brother said the faithful were being told at prayers to get out and vote on Jan. 30.

"All the Shiite follow one man, Ayatollah al-Sistani," said Tahar Rihan Hamud Mahawi, clad in a checked red headscarf and a long grey robe.

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