January 28, 2005

In Violence-Prone Mosul, Voters Will Need a Shield of Snipers


New York Times

MOSUL, Iraq, Jan. 27 - Snipers are taking up positions across Mosul. The concrete barriers around the voting sites are up. The actual polling stations are being opened, replacing the decoys set up to deceive the insurgents.

An election will be held Sunday in this violence-racked city of 1.6 million, but it remains an open question here - as in so many other Sunni Arab cities where the insurgent presence is strong - whether enough people will brave the dangers to vote in significant numbers.

"Mosul is a hot spot," said Salem Isa, the head of security for Nineveh Province. "We have special security plans and will try to take all the possible steps to get them to the boxes peacefully."

It will not be easy. Even handling election materials is considered so dangerous that ballots and ballot boxes will be distributed to the 80 polling centers by armored American military convoys. "The military has to do it because of the security situation," said Khaled Kazar, the head of the elections commission here. "No one would ever volunteer to move this stuff."

Once considered a model city of the occupation, Mosul has descended into a hellish sectarian stew, 65 percent Sunni Arab and 30 percent Kurdish, with a sprinkling of Turkmens, Assyrians and other ethnic groups. Making matters worse, in November thousands of police and security officers abandoned their posts under an insurgent assault that coincided with the American attack on Falluja.

Since then, scores of civilians have died in attacks. Kurds, government officials and Iraqi security officers have been massacred.

Thousands of American troops poured into the region after the uprising in November, anchoring security, arresting suspects, uncovering caches of weapons and carrying out raids in some of the most extensive military operations in the country. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters have been sent here to enforce security.

But much damage had been done, and election officials were left scrambling to catch up. Mosul's 700 election workers, threatened by insurgents, walked off the job. A warehouse full of ballot papers was attacked and burned in December.

"It has not gone to plan," said Maj. Anthony Cruz, the liaison officer between the elections commission in Mosul and the American military. "They had to reconstitute a large portion of staff."

To recruit more election workers, Mr. Kazar promised prospects a secure place to stay, food provisions and a bonus of $500 - a major sum in Iraq right now. The drive apparently paid off to some extent.

On Thursday, Mr. Kazar was busy leading a group of new recruits in the basics of balloting. At a guarded building in Mosul, he demonstrated how to mark voters' fingers so they could not vote twice, how to use the voting booths and how to check identities.

One election worker said he joined the commission because he was convinced it was the only way to get the country out from under military occupation.

"We need an election to get a real government going and to get real police and security forces," said the man, a 25-year-old Arab from Mosul, who declined to be named because, he said, he would be "slaughtered" if he were identified.

American officials have been trying to convince Iraqi voters that they can vote safely. "American and Iraqi operations conducted over the last several weeks have set the conditions for the vast majority of Iraqis to vote safely," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, said in a brief interview here. But even so, he warned, "there will be violence."

This week, an American-military supported radio talk show called "Your Voice" hit the airwaves to try to inform Iraqis in the area about the process and to drum up new recruits for election work.

In about half an hour on the air, Mr. Kazar fielded at least five calls from listeners.

"We will take every possible precaution to make the election sufficiently secure," he told one listener.

Another man called up and apparently voiced wariness about the election. "This is your future, beginning from your neighborhood, your city and your country," Mr. Kazar answered.

Despite such efforts, however, turnout is expected to be low. To begin with, many Sunni Arabs here and throughout Anbar Province, home to Falluja, Ramadi and other volatile cities that form the center of the resistance, are not interested in voting under any circumstances.

With that alienation and the pervasive threat of violence, officials are expecting a turnout of only about 30 percent in the Arab section of Mosul and are hoping for as much as 50 percent in the more secure Kurdish area. But they caution that these are just guesses, and that the actual turnout will be affected by what happens on Sunday.

Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of coalition forces across northern Iraq, said his "nightmare scenario" would be "multiple, simultaneous suicide attacks early on election day." The goal of such an insurgent offensive, he said, would be to deter voters just as the polls open, when many people were still making up their minds whether to venture out.

"The real key is Iraqi security forces," said General Ham. They will be guarding election places between now and Sunday, and searching voters on election day. American troops, he said, would be on patrol and on call, but away from the polling places.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kazar was giving his raw recruits last-minute instructions on voting procedures. "They will go to the cabinet and fill out the ballot," he said. "He will go to the box." Then, he said, putting his hand on top of two clear plastic containers, "These are ballot boxes." The 30 or so election recruits listened raptly.

Mr. Kazar folded up two ballot papers, one for the national assembly and another for provincial elections, and placed both of them in one box, pausing for effect. "Some will want to put both ballots in one box, but don't let them," he said.

And finally: "When the ballot box is full, secure it well."

Christine Hauser reported from Mosul for this article, and Thom Shanker from Baghdad.