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Can Iraq's election be saved?

By Bill Powell and Christopher Allbritton

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Iraqis in the U.S. prepare to vote in their nation's election.

Pre-election fighting kills at least 14 members of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi concerns that schools will be used as polling places.
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In the bustling city of Mosul in northern Iraq, there are few hints of the historic election that is about to take place.

There are no candidates on the stump making speeches. No supporters handing out leaflets. No rallies, rope lines or debates. Many voters, in fact, don't even know who is on the ballot.

Instead, on the streets of the country's third largest city, there is heavy armor--Bradley fighting vehicles, Abrams tanks--and 10,000 weapons-toting U.S. troops, reinforced by almost as many Iraqi government soldiers. They conduct raids on suspected insurgent hideouts, patrol neighborhoods on foot and man checkpoints throughout the city.

In Mosul and the surrounding area, U.S. forces are working toward the same simple purpose: to "kill or capture bad guys and keep them from influencing the elections," says Captain Kevin Beagle, the squadron plans officer for the Army's 2-14 Cavalry. "We've been ramping up, obviously, for the elections."

Throughout Iraq's restive Sunni heartland, the military is in a race to subdue the insurgents by January 30, when the country is scheduled to hold its first free elections in nearly 50 years. In Mosul commanders say they have curbed the insurgents' movements in the city. But the rebels have responded with ever more sophisticated strikes, disabling U.S. military vehicles with roadside bombs and then opening fire on stopped convoys from several positions. Their attacks have killed nine U.S. soldiers and scores of Iraqi national guardsmen in the past week.

"By no means is this a safe city," says Captain Jim Pangelinan, who commands the Alpha Company of the Army's Task Force 1-14. "The insurgents' tactics have been more complex than what they've used previously here or elsewhere in the country."

Pangelinan and his men have precious little time left to convince the estimated 1.8 million Mosul residents that it will be safe to participate on January 30. "If they feel there isn't decent security," says Major D.A. Sims, the operations officer responsible for Mosul, "they won't turn out in large numbers."

With each day of mayhem, that prediction seems more accurate. The Bush Administration and Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, have resisted calls from a cross section of Iraqi political, tribal and religious leaders to postpone the vote until violence subsides in the insurgent-infested swath of territory that cuts through the center and up into the northern parts of the country. Those are areas with heavy concentrations of Sunni Arabs, who make up only 20 percent of Iraq's population yet ruled Iraq during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

They know that in democracies the majority rules, and that in Iraq long-suppressed Shi'ite Muslims -- who make up 60 percent of the population -- are the majority. As distasteful as the prospect of Shi'ite dominance may be to some Sunnis, many would would prefer democracy to Saddam's tyranny.

But with less than two weeks before the vote, U.S. officials admit that the insurgents have succeeded in discouraging Sunni participation by assassinating election workers, gunning down politicians and threatening with death anyone who shows up to vote.

Lieut. General Thomas Metz, the commander of U.S. ground forces, said last week that four of Iraq's 18 provinces remain too unsafe for many to vote. These insecure areas -- which include portions of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit -- are home to as much as 40 percent of Iraq's population.

While the U.S. expects high participation among the country's Shi'ites and Kurds, it fears that Sunni participation could be as low as 10 percent to 15 percent.

"The insurgents are going to try to intimidate Iraqis to prevent them from voting, and they will go to any lengths to do that," says a Defense Department official. "We may not have seen the end of what they'll do."

That's a chilling prospect.

In a report released last week, the CIA's in-house think tank, the National Intelligence Council, warned that jihadists are transforming Iraq into another Afghanistan, a "training ground" for a "new class of terrorists who are professionalized and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself."

Pentagon officials say there are fewer daily attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces than there were two months ago, but they are stunned by the lethality of recent insurgent attacks. A roadside bomb last Monday blew up a Bradley fighting vehicle, a heavily armored troop carrier designed to battle Soviet infantry during the cold war, killing two U.S. soldiers.

Many roadside bombs are expertly packed with large Russian-made shells fused together to blow up simultaneously and penetrate thickly armored vehicles.

"What a mess," says another Pentagon official. "The frustration level here is high. The insurgents aren't stupid. They have the training, the equipment, the munitions, and they can see how effective they've been."

After months spent hyping the election as a watershed -- not just for Iraq but also for the entire Arab world -- and a necessary step toward an eventual reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq, the Administration is now downplaying expectations, pointing out that voters will merely be selecting a transitional government on January 30, which will in turn begin the process of writing a constitution. If all goes as planned, a permanent government will take power in 2006.

"These elections will not be perfect," says a senior Administration official. "Allawi said to our Congress that these will not be the best elections Iraq ever has. And that's true."

So why not postpone them? Administration officials say that a delay would hand the insurgency a political victory and risk infuriating the majority Shi'ites -- in particular their chief religious authority, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani.

The Shi'ites have "consistently expressed a desire for this process to just get a move on and for there to be fair representation," says a British official who has spent time in Iraq.

And no one thinks security will quickly improve. "If we delay by two, three or six months," says the British official, "one month before election day we would be in exactly the same position we are now but with an extra 1,000 people dead and the violence more sophisticated."

But holding the election under the current volatile conditions carries its own risks. The insurgents' aim is to depress turnout in the Sunni areas and strip the election of broad legitimacy. About 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote on election day, according to Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission. A commission official predicts about half will actually cast a ballot.

That kind of turnout would be acceptable, but analysts are worried that the new legislature won't adequately reflect Iraq's ethnic composition. The assembly will select a new Prime Minister and President but, more important, will also draw up a new constitution.

If Sunnis don't vote in sufficient numbers -- an official with a nongovernmental organization in Baghdad says that a Sunni turnout of "under 50 percent becomes a problem" -- the drafting of the constitution will be dominated by Shi'ite Muslims. And that would further alienate Sunnis and embolden extremists, including terrorist mastermind Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, who has called for an all-out sectarian civil war against the Shi'ites.

What's more, the electoral system devised last year by the U.S., the U.N. and the now disbanded Iraqi Governing Council could further work against the Sunnis. Rather than let candidates compete in their home provinces -- which in the Sunni-dominated areas north and west of Baghdad would have guaranteed that Sunnis win seats in the constitutional assembly, no matter how many people showed up -- the system effectively throws everyone into a single pool.Those candidates who receive the most votes in the national tally will win seats.

At the time it was adopted, a U.S. official says, the system was "the least worst option," in part because the process of determining provincial borders would have made it impossible to meet the Administration's goal of holding elections by the end of January.

But the rules were made before it became apparent that voter participation in Sunni areas would be low. If more Sunnis cannot be persuaded to vote, the constitutional assembly will be disproportionately dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds -- groups that for more than two decades were mercilessly oppressed by Saddam and his Sunni-dominated government.

With time running short and many Iraqis afraid to vote, the U.S. is scrambling to shore up security in critical areas. In the so-called Sunni triangle, Pentagon officials say, U.S. and Iraqi forces conduct about 1,000 foot patrols every day.

"We are definitely on the offensive," says a Pentagon official. In Baghdad the 1st Cavalry Division has brought in two battalions from the elite 82nd Airborne and extended the rotation of its own 2nd Brigade, adding about 5,000 troops.

On election day, the job of providing security at 5,900 polling stations nationwide will fall mainly to the Iraqis -- 150,000 U.S. forces will try to fade into the background as much as possible. There are 7,600 Iraqi troops and 18,000 policemen in the capital alone, though a U.S. military official says at least 7,000 more police might be needed.

The Allawi government is considering even more extreme measures to tighten security across the country as election day draws closer. The government has drawn up plans for a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a restriction on travel starting three days before the election, including a total ban on car traffic in major cities, which means voters will have to walk to polling stations. And since insurgents often set off roadside bombs with cell phones, cell service may be shut down on election day.

Throughout Iraq, the hopeful anticipation of the coming exercise in democracy is tempered by an ever present dread. On patrol in Mosul last week, Pangelinan's unit stopped in front of an old man's house. As Americans handed out candy to neighborhood children, Pangelinan asked the Iraqi how he thought the election would go.

"Hopefully it will succeed in Mosul," the man said.

Pangelinan responded, "I know it will."

A few minutes later, after Pangelinan and his men had moved on, a car bomb detonated in the distance, sending a halo of white smoke into the air.

With reporting by Charles Crain in Mosul, Aparisim Ghosh in Baghdad, Helen Gibson in London, and Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller in Washington


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