Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Report #56 on the Era of Peace

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Iraqi campaigning stops a day ahead of vote

USA Today
December 14, 2005

BAGHDAD (AP) — Campaigning around Iraq stopped Wednesday to give the country's 15 million voters an opportunity to reflect before deciding who will govern their country for the next four years.

Streets in Baghdad were eerily quiet the day before Thursday's election, with police strictly enforcing a traffic ban. Only the noise from an occasional siren, sporadic gunshot or a U.S. helicopter overhead could be heard. Borders and airports have also been closed and the nighttime curfew has been extended in an effort to secure the vote.

Two police officers were killed and four others were injured by a roadside bomb that exploded next to an Interior Ministry patrol in northern Mosul, the city's al-Jumhouri hospital said.

Iraq's election commission said it had registered 6,655 candidates running on 996 lists and had certified 307 political groups — either in the form of single candidates or parties — and 19 coalitions.

Baghdad is the biggest electoral district with 2,161 candidates running for 59 of the 275 seats in parliament, said the commission's executive director, Adel Ali al-Lami. There are 33,000 polling stations around the country.

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, denied reports that a tanker truck filled with thousands of blank ballots had been confiscated near the Iranian border. Earlier in the day, a security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said a truck had been seized in the border town of Badra.

On the last day of campaigning Tuesday, a roadside bomb killed four American soldiers and gunmen assassinated a candidate for parliament. The American deaths in Baghdad brought to at least 2,149 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the start of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The U.S. ambassador said Tuesday the total number of abused prisoners found so far in jails run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry came to about 120. The statement by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reinforced Sunni Arab claims of mistreatment by security forces — a major issue among Sunnis in the election campaign. (Related story: Abuse found in Iraqi facilities)

He said more than 100 of the detainees found last month at an Interior Ministry jail in Baghdad's Jadriyah district had suffered signs of abuse. More than 20 others were found three days ago at another Interior Ministry lockup, he said.

Khalilzad said the United States would "accelerate the investigation" to determine who was responsible for abuses — a longtime Sunni Arab demand.

Despite the violence, more than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious decree instructing their followers to vote, boosting American hopes the election will encourage more members of the disaffected minority to abandon the insurgency.

While some prominent clerics with links to the insurgency have avoided calling on their followers to vote, the edict is likely to encourage many Sunnis to go to the polls. They hope that more participation will lessen the ability of the Shiite majority to abuse them.

Three of Iraq's leading politicians agreed Tuesday that a speedy withdrawal by foreign troops before Iraqi forces are ready would cause chaos.

But the three — former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Sunni Arab politician Tariq al-Hashimi — disagreed on the description of U.S. and other foreign troops. Barzani described them as "forces of liberation," while al-Hashimi said they were occupiers.

The three leaders, speaking from Baghdad, appeared in a debate on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television. Such debates are rare in the Arab world, where candidates mainly rely on rallies attended by hand-picked followers. Their comments were also noteworthy because they represent important constituencies in the Thursday vote.

Barzani heads the Kurdish autonomous region in the north and is among the country's most powerful politicians. Allawi heads a religiously mixed ticket in the Thursday election. Al-Hashimi represents a major Sunni Arab coalition.

Al-Hashimi criticized President Bush for saying the United States is fighting terrorism in Iraq.

"Why should Iraqis pay a bill for something they have nothing to do with?" said al-Hashimi, a candidate for parliament. "Terrorism is not the problem of Iraqis."

The Bush administration hopes the election will draw a large turnout among Sunni Arabs and produce a government that can win the trust of the minority community that is the backbone of the insurgency. That would in turn allow the United States and its coalition partners to begin bringing their troops home next year.

Iraqis living outside the country began voting Tuesday in the United States and 14 other countries. Strong turnout was seen in polling stations around the world, including in Syria, Jordan and Iran, where Associated Press reporters witnessed heavier turnout compared to Iraq's January election.

Many Sunnis boycotted that election, enabling rival Shiites and Kurds to win most of the seats in the interim parliament — a development that sharpened communal tensions and fueled the insurgency. But unlike January's vote, which elected a government which was to last for less than one year, the new government will be in power for four years.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a prominent insurgent group, said Tuesday it would not attack polling stations. But it vowed to continue its war against U.S.-led coalition forces.

On Monday, five Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, also promised not to try to disrupt the voting, even though it branded the election a "satanic project."


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