Iraqi officials on Saturday announced drastic security measures for the coming elections, including a travel ban between cities, the establishment of pedestrian-only areas within blocks of the polling places and plans to park bulldozers and ambulances in front of the polls.
One US general said it was "highly likely" that travel restrictions would be so severe that all private vehicle traffic would be banned across the country on election day, Jan. 30. Already, Iraq is under a state of emergency, with expanded police powers and a curfew, as fears of election-related mayhem grow.
Iraqi officials also settled a lingering question on Saturday regarding whether people in insurgent trouble spots could vote in safer areas, saying, no, voters must vote in their own provinces, despite the risks.
"People in Fallujah," the scene of the bloodiest fighting so far in Iraq, "will not be allowed to vote in Baghdad," said Abdul-Hussein Hendawi, the Iraqi election commissioner.
"The voter will not be allowed to go outside his province," he said.
US military officials conceded that this policy might mean a low turnout in the hard-core Sunni areas violently opposed to the presence of US forces and the elections. In several of these areas, insurgents have killed election officials and threatened to behead anyone who votes.
"Convincing people who live in these places that it is safe to vote, well, that is a tough one," said Brigadier General Carter Ham, commander of US forces in northern Iraq.
Already, US officials like Ham are playing down expectations, saying turnout is not the only measure of success.
"The fact that these elections can be conducted is in itself a success," Ham said.
Officials are hoping that by relaxing voter registration rules in the two most troubled provinces, Anbar in the west and Nineveh in the north, more voters will turn out. In those two areas, voters will be allowed to register on the day of elections.
Security officials blame Sunni Arab insurgents for the bulk of election-related violence. Sunni Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Iraq's population, are expected to fare badly in the elections for the 275-seat legislature and provincial councils. Most of the Sunni political parties have dropped out of the race as Shiite political groups have steadily gathered momentum.
Sixty percent of Iraq's population is Shiite and several of the top Shiite groups, which have waited decades to seize power, have joined forces.
The Shiite groups are expected to win overwhelmingly.
On Saturday, a spokesman for the Duleim tribe, one of the largest in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, said tribal leaders were urging members to boycott the election because they viewed it as illegitimate.
"They cannot vote," said the spokesman, Talal al-Gaaod, referring to his 3 million fellow Duleim members. "If anybody goes to vote, they will be killed."
Adding to people's lack of confidence is the fact that Iraqi security forces, who have been dogged by troubles just protecting themselves, will be in charge of voter security. According to the plan unveiled on Saturday, Iraqi police officers and soldiers will guard polling places and roadblocks, while US troops wait at a discreet distance.
"There will be some coordination with multinational forces," said Wael Abdul-Latif, Iraq's provincial affairs minister. "But the greatest responsibility will fall on Iraqi shoulders."