Iraq to close borders for polls

BAGHDAD (AP) — Voting begins today in hospitals, military camps and even prisons across Iraq, launching the process to choose a new parliament that the United States hopes can help quell the insurgency so US forces can begin heading home.
Iraq’s government announced it will close its borders, extend the nighttime curfew and restrict domestic travel starting Tuesday — two days before the main election day — to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote.

“We are very prepared for the elections, and we are highly determined,” said Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, the Cabinet minister in charge of protecting the voters. “We hope that everyone participates and that it will be a safe day… We are at a historic juncture.” Voters will be choosing their first fully constitutional parliament since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein. The 275-member assembly, which will serve for four years, will choose a new government that US officials hope can win the confidence of the disaffected Sunni Arab community — which is the foundation of the insurgency.

Although most of the 15 million eligible voters will cast ballots Thursday, soldiers, police, hospital patients and prisoners not yet convicted of crimes can vote Monday starting at 9:00am (0600 GMT).

Officials said Saddam has the right to vote but it was not known whether he would. Suspected insurgents held in US or Iraqi detention but who have not been convicted of an offence would also be eligible, Iraqi officials said.

On Tuesday, the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi voters living outside the country can begin casting their ballots over a two-day period at polling centres in 15 countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia.

Voters must produce a passport, certificate of citizenship or military service papers and dip an index finger in indelible purple ink to prevent them from voting more than once.

Most attention has been focused on the Sunni Arab community, which largely boycotted the January 30 elections to protest the continued US military presence.

With most Sunni Arabs staying home, the rival Shiites and Kurds won more than 220 of the 275 seats — a move that sharpened communal tensions and fuelled the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

This time, more Sunni Arab candidates are in the race, and changes in the elections law to allocate most seats by province instead of based on a party’s nationwide total all but guarantee a sizeable Sunni bloc in the next assembly.

“Indications are that many Iraqis of various sectarian and ethnic lines will participate. I urge all Iraqis to go out and vote,” US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters Sunday in Suleimaniyah.

We need more cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions that are issue-oriented … We need a government that brings Iraqis together.” Khalilzad expressed hope “there will be more Sunni participation and that the turnout should be quite high.” Turnout in January was about 58 percent but less than five per cent in the predominately Sunni province of Anbar, a hotbed of insurgency.

US officials hope that a big Sunni turnout and a strong Sunni bloc in the new parliament will help take the steam out of the insurgency so that the United States and its coalition partners can begin drawing down their forces in 2006.

On Sunday, an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the US command said. That brought to at least 2,142 the number of US military members who have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

During an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “This Week,” Khalilzad held out hope that the election would be a turning point, saying “conditions are moving in a direction that can allow a significant decrease in the size of the American forces starting next year.” Even with a big Sunni vote, Shiites are expected to win the biggest share of parliamentary seats. Shiites form an estimated 60 per cent of Iraq’s 27 million people compared to 20 per cent for the Sunni Arabs.

On Sunday, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a binding religious decree, or fatwa, instructing his followers to vote for candidates “who can be trusted to protect their principles and safeguard their interests.” That appeared to be a veiled endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties that dominates the current government.

Sistani also urged Shiites to avoid “splitting the vote and risking its waste.” That admonition appeared directed against former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite running on a ticket with several prominent Sunnis.

Some Sunni religious extremists, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have warned Iraqis against voting. But most insurgent groups have avoided threats of violence that kept Sunni turnout low in January.

The hardline Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has said it’s up to individuals to decide whether to vote. The association was at the forefront of the January boycott call.

Nevertheless, thousands of Iraqi forces will be mustered to protect polling stations, with US and other coalition troops ready to help in the event of a major attack.

Starting at midnight Monday, all borders and airports will be closed and travel across provincial boundaries will be banned until Saturday morning. Private vehicles are also expected to be ordered off the street on election day to prevent car bombs.

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