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Iraq: Strict Measures Imposed To Improve Voter Safety

  • Valentinas Mite

Up to 13 people were killed and 40 wounded today when a car bomb exploded near a Shi'a mosque in Baghdad as worshippers were celebrating the Eid Al-Adha, one of the most important Islamic holidays. Women and children are among the casualties. It's the latest in a string of deadly attacks and killings by insurgents in Iraq apparently aimed at intimidating voters ahead of the 30 January elections. RFE/RL reports on what is being done to try to ensure the safety of Iraqi voters.

Prague, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi authorities are imposing tough new measures in an effort to improve security so that voters can safely visit polling stations on 30 January to elect members of a new National Assembly.

Iraq's borders will be closed from 29 January to 31 January to prevent foreign fighters from entering the country. Only pilgrims returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to cross.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says the measures are necessary. "Security is our main priority," he said. "We must defeat terrorism in our country and terrorism coming from outside our borders and secure our borders in a way that prevents these criminals from infiltrating our country."

Nighttime curfews will also be extended and movement within the country will be restricted. Police intend to bar traffic from getting close to voting centers to prevent car bombings. Travel will be forbidden between provinces. Only vehicles with official permission will be allowed on the roads.

Earlier this month, Allawi announced a 30-day extension of the state of emergency the country has been under since November. The emergency laws empower the government to impose curfews, close borders and airports and detain people on suspicion of being part of insurgent groups.

Haydar Balli is a technician who owns a computer shop in central Baghdad. He told RFE/RL that, despite the new measures, the security situation is dire and is getting worse as the vote approaches.

"These past few days, I couldn't go to my work because of the explosions and the car bombs. So I stayed in my house for these last few days, and I managed my work by telephone, using my telephone and the Internet," Balli said.

Balli is afraid for his family. He says he refuses to allow his wife and their 2-year-old son to leave home.

"I made my house, for example, like a prison. I keep all the doors locked, and they are not getting outside of the home. I bring everything they want -- from food, fuel for the generator, anything -- medicines maybe for my kid. And if I have a [medical] emergency because I have a little child, I prefer to use the ambulance car to bring me to the hospital. I don't use my car after 8 p.m.," Balli said.

Balli said the new security measures are necessary, but he doubts their effectiveness. Sealing the borders, he said, will do nothing to make the country safer. He said the government only controls border posts, not the vast border country itself. In any event, he said, insurgents who want to fight are already in the country.

He said not allowing private cars to travel without official permission is a wise move and is likely to prevent suicide attacks during the vote. But he said this will not stop mortar attacks.

He also said the new restrictions will make it more difficult for ordinary Iraqis to vote, but said the will is there. "I want to vote, but I have a little bit of a problem," he said. "The voting center is not in my [neighborhood]. It is outside my home area."

Balli, who is a Shi'a Muslim, said his relatives and friends, though they share his security concerns, are planning to vote, too.

Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces and police have been meeting to discuss security issues.

RFE/RL correspondent Laith Ahmad sat in on one of these meetings recently in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah. An officer at the meeting -- who asked not to be identified -- outlined plans for election day.

"The Iraqi Army will be on the second line to support security forces and police forces inside Al-Basrah city. We are going to close all accesses and all streets leading inside Al-Basrah. This will be a complete security cordon formed of Iraqi National Guard forces aimed at securing the voting centers," the officer said.

However, the new Iraqi security forces have been largely ineffective at slowing the insurgency and are frequent targets of attacks themselves. Today, gunmen attacked a police station in the western Iraqi town of Hit, chasing away officers and stealing their weapons. No one was killed or wounded.

Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East analyst with Jane's Sentinel in London, said it is difficult to say if the new security measures will work without knowing the capabilities of the insurgents. But he believes it is unlikely that attacks can be effectively stopped.

"I think there will still be violence, basically. I think they certainly won't be effective in stopping all possible attacks. I think it's pretty safe to say that," Binnie said, adding that little more can be done to secure the country in the week or so remaining before the vote.

[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]
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