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Thousands Of Election Observers To Monitor Iraq Vote

Iraqi soldiers vote early in Amara on March 4.
(RFE/RL) -- When Iraqis go to the polls on March 7, the legitimacy of the new parliament they elect will largely hinge upon how free and fair is the vote.

To help ascertain that, thousands of Iraqi and international observers have fanned out across the country to monitor what happens at polling stations and counting centers.

"There is a quite impressive observation presence in the polling stations," Stephen Mandan, a European Union election observer in Irbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on March 4. "In all the polling stations where we have been, major political parties have their agents, their representatives, there."

Many foreign countries have sent observers, taking advantage of the improved security conditions.

Karim al-Tamimi, a member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said last week that observers were participating from the EU, UN agencies, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He said the more than 350 international observers are accompanied by protection teams and interpreters.

However, the vast majority of election monitors will be representatives of Iraq's competing political parties themselves.

Under the election rules, each party is permitted to send observers to polling and counting stations in every province where its candidates are running. Some parties are running only locally, while others lists are competing nationwide.

Security A Concern

As the country waits for the polls to open, security is the main concern. Abbass al-Hakim, in charge of a polling station in central Baghdad, said security preparations in his area began late last month.

"Actually, the security forces started preparations to protect the polling stations 10 days ago," Hakim said. "The security forces have been trained, so that they are ready to protect the polling stations on the day of the election. God willing, we hope all the best during the election."

The dangers have been highlighted this week by attacks on polling stations in Baghdad, as early voting began on March 4, that killed 12 people. On March 3, attacks killed 33 people in Diyala Province, northeast of the capital.

As part of the security measures for March 7, the government will restrict vehicle traffic in city centers and ban trucks, horse-drawn carts, and motorcycles. Voters will largely have to walk to ballot stations.

Iraqi police and soldiers will maintain multiple checkpoints while, in Baghdad, security will be boosted by U.S. airborne monitoring systems sharing information with Iraqi forces below.

U.S. military spokesman Major General Steve Lanza said U.S. troops largely will be restricted to protecting Western election observers. But U.S. troops will also serve as a rapid-reaction force, if needed.

with agency reports