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Tensions rise as Iraq's referendum nears

U.S., Iraqi forces take precautions in Diyala province

By Arwa Damon
CNN

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BAQUBA, Iraq (CNN) -- "We learned from the last elections and completely changed our voting system, and so have the terrorists," said Amer Latif, head of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq for Diyala province, slightly shaken but determined after having just survived an attack on his life.

A bomb targeted Latif's vehicle Monday as he traveled from his home south of Baquba to a provincial council meeting -- the latest in a series of attacks against him.

The others have involved small-arms fire, mortars and rockets directed at his house. He said this week's attack was the closest insurgents have come to killing him. (Watch: Sunni group strikes deal in constitution compromise -- 2:11)

In recent weeks, Diyala province, north of Baghdad, has experienced a period of relative security, leading U.S. military officials and residents to suspect this is the calm before the storm.

On Wednesday, a suicide car bomber targeted a police patrol outside the city, wounding seven Iraqi officers and one female civilian.

The atmosphere is tense in the city, as well as the rest of Iraq, with voters preparing to go to the polls Saturday in a national referendum on a new constitution.

The U.S. military in Diyala is expecting suicide car bombs in a pre-referendum attack cycle, and Iraqi security forces at checkpoints are cracking down and searching nearly every vehicle that passes through the area.

U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a full rehearsal for the referendum day last week, according to Col. Steven Salazar, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division attached to the 42nd Infantry Division.

He said the province has a strong police force and Iraqi army working alongside U.S. forces.

"We don't have any major concerns for referendum day," Salazar said. "There will be violence leading to the referendum, but it's nothing that coalition and Iraqi forces can't handle."

Insurgents may hold 'rehearsals'

The military says it believes the insurgents may be modifying tactics based on lessons learned in January's election.

The insurgents also may be launching their own "rehearsals" for referendum day, according to a military intelligence officer.

Maj. Dean Wollan, intelligence officer with the 3rd Brigade, said predictions are that any large attacks on referendum day likely would be in the form of bombers wearing suicide vests, targeting predominantly Shiite voting areas.

The U.S. military estimates 3,000 insurgents operate in the province -- most being criminal elements and "Saddamists" loyal to the former regime, with about 500 religious extremists, foreign fighters and terrorists.

Some are opposed to Iraq's draft constitution and others to the democratic process in general.

There has been a decrease in intimidation propaganda, compared with the campaign before the last elections.

The U.S. military has received reports of leaflets threatening the lives of anyone who votes, and now there are also leaflets telling citizens to vote "no" or they will be killed.

As referendum day nears, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are in the midst of Operation Sunrise II, a push against the insurgency throughout the province.

Sunrise II started September 15 and will continue through the referendum. Maj. Mark Borowski, the brigade operations officer, said the efforts are being led mainly by the Iraqis and have resulted in Iraqi police breaking up a cell of Ansar al Sunna, a terrorist network loosely aligned with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq.

Borowski said joint operations have led to the detention of a couple of high-value individuals as well as the uncovering of weapons caches -- the largest with enough material for 160 bombs.

Overnight Wednesday, the U.S. and Iraqi military conducted a raid into Sufeit, a village northwest of Baquba along the Tigris River. Fifty-six suspected insurgents were detained in the operation, called Operating River City.

Borowski watched live video of the operation taken by a camera on an unmanned aerial vehicle.

"It was like turning on a light in a room and watching the roaches scatter when the helos arrived," he said.

Securing ballots a challenge

The province has 268 polling sites. Latif, the head of the province's electoral commission, said at least an additional 100,000 citizens had registered to vote since the last elections, bringing the number of registered voters to more than 760,000 out of 900,000 who are eligible.

In January, the province saw a 33 percent voter turnout, a number expected to increase this time around.

The ballots are making their way from a secure warehouse to the various districts, a process that has not been without problems. The election official in charge of the warehouse and the distribution of the ballots said security is his biggest challenge as ballots get moved from one destination to the next.

On Thursday, insurgents attacked a convoy escorting ballots from Baquba to Muqtadya, seriously wounding two election workers and slightly wounding two Iraqi soldiers.

The Iraqi convoy commander said he believes the gunmen were aware the convoy was carrying ballots. The trucks with the ballots were traveling ahead of the military escort, and the commander said a roadside bomb struck one of several decoy trucks he put in the escort.

Iraqi special forces returned fire after insurgents also fired a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms. The trucks carrying the ballots made it to their final destination.

At the warehouse Wednesday, truck drivers initially refused to carry out their mission, citing fear for their lives. Drivers also fear having their trucks marked for attack, even after the referendum is over.

Last year, insurgents attacked three trucks used to transport ballots, said the warehouse official, who asked to remain unnamed.

The official said that the province has received 927,600 blank ballots, although registered voters number slightly more than 760,000. The additional ballots are a precaution in case a truck gets attacked and ballots are damaged.

Prisoners vote early

Prisoners at the Diyala provincial police station's jail were given the chance to vote Thursday.

Only those detainees who have not been tried or convicted and have registered to vote will be allowed to vote early.

One detainee, in jail on robbery charges, said that he voted in support of the constitution, claiming that it would legitimize the Iraqi security forces and the government and move the country toward stability.

Another complained of not having enough time to read the constitution before being taken out to vote. A third prisoner -- jailed on charges after a fistfight -- said that he would vote against it. He said he had read bits and pieces of the constitution in the newspaper before being detained.

Earlier in the week at police headquarters, Iraqi security forces met with the U.S. military to iron out details for security during the referendum.

Col. Basel Abd El Mineim, head of the jail at the station, said the security situation has improved in the province due to several factors, including the number of insurgents detained over the last year and an increase in support among the local population toward the Iraqi police's efforts.

"People have started to reject the violence," he said. "Their view has changed because now, more and more, they are seeing that it's just senseless acts of violence and not jihad."

Recipe for civil war?

The overriding sentiment in downtown Baquba's busy marketplace Wednesday was that passage of the constitution could be the recipe for civil war.

Residents said they are not worried about conflict among residents in Diyala province -- especially in Baquba, where Sunnis and Shiites have been living alongside one another for centuries.

But some expressed fears that private militias would try to incite violence. Many residents -- both Sunnis and Shiites -- said they believed the constitution will fail, adding that most people would be out on referendum day, and those that CNN spoke to said they would be voting "no."

It remains to be seen if the decisions in Baghdad to make certain amendments to the constitution in an effort to gain Sunni support will change the views held in the streets of Baquba.

Citizens also complained about not receiving copies of the constitution, with one man saying that he would not be voting because he had not seen the draft.

But some of those who bear the brunt of most of the insurgency's attacks in Diyala province, the Iraqi security forces, remain surprisingly optimistic.

At one of Baquba's deadliest intersections -- a frequent site of car bombs -- referendum posters hung on blast barriers, in some areas alongside tattered posters from last year's election. Here, a traffic police officer insisted that all Iraqis were united in their support for the constitution. Inshallah -- God willing -- there would be no more violence, he said.

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