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Iraqi government promises secure election as anxious residents stockpile supplies

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The interim Iraqi government Saturday promised voters that polling centers for parliamentary elections on Jan. 30 would be secure and that the election would be run solely by Iraqis.

But with only two weeks before the election, authorities have yet to reveal important details about the process and residents in some areas are stockpiling essential supplies amidst fears of chaos.

The Independent Election Commission, which promised a transparent system, has not yet said when it would reveal the names of the candidates or when voters would learn where they could cast their ballot. And they said the security plan they outlined could change.

They also conceded that in four of the nation's 18 governorates, security difficulties could hamper the vote. Brigadier General Carter Ham, the commander of Task Force Olympia, which includes Mosul, said Saturday that in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, the commission is trying to replace election workers who resigned because of concerns for their safety.

Insurgents have assassinated election workers in several areas of the country, including a bold daylight attack on the streets of Baghdad.

As the government began trickling information out about the election, some residents in Baghdad were stockpiling supplies at home, saying they did not know what to expect around election day. Many observers expect an upsurge of violence.

Yusra Yousef, a 30-year-old mother of two in western Baghdad, said that she was buying food and water. She had heard there could be a water shortage.

"We are used to such crises. We have stockpiled for every crisis and war," Yousef said.

Ahmed Kamal, 33, owns a grocery store in western Baghdad and said that since last week, he noticed more people buying canned foods, rice and beans. Some of his customers bring a list of goods they need, and he spends the day packaging them.

"Some people want to take it with them to Syria or Jordan," Kamal said. They want to leave the country "to avoid the violence. It's cheaper for people to shop from here."

Wael Abdel Latif, the Minister of State for Provinces and Hussein Hindawi, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission said Saturday that the government would declare Jan. 30, election day, a holiday. Police and military forces would be stationed throughout the country, and cars would not be allowed near polling centers to avoid possible car bombings.

Latif said Iraqi forces would be in charge of security. Coalition forces, including U.S. troops, would play a supporting role.

The Iraq forces "will be distributed according to the number of voting centers," Latif said.

He did not reveal the number of forces but Sabah Kadhim, the Ministry of Interior spokesman, said 100,000 of the nation's 135,000 police officers would be working that day.

The election centers would open between 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. There would be two lines leading into a polling center—one for men, the other for women—Hindawi said. Voters in each line are to be searched before casting their ballot.

Afterward, the ballots would be counted at each polling center, Hindawi said. The results would then be sent to Baghdad, and the government expects to release preliminary results within hours after the polls close and the final tally within 10 days, he said.

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Hindawi said Iraqis—not foreign organizations—would supervise the polling centers.

Voters will be choosing representatives for a 275-member National Assembly. That governing body is to craft the nation's constitution and name the government's president and two vice presidents.

Latif said that to protect voters and polling stations, the government would limit driving nationwide, saying residents would not be allowed to drive between provinces. Hindawi said that no one would be allowed to vote outside of his or her province.

Instead, there would be more than 5,500 polling centers, enough for everyone to vote near their home, Hindawi said.

Latif warned the security plan was still fluid.

"Today we have completed the basic guidelines of the security plans. These guidelines are not final," he said.

In the most troubled areas, the Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi, and in Mosul, voters would be allowed to register and vote on Election Day, Hindawi said.

The government has not released the names of the 7,000-plus candidates or the locations of polling centers because of security concerns. Instead, it is up to the candidate to release his or her name.

Officials have said they do not want to reveal polling station locations because they do not want to give away information to potential attackers.

Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population is expected to make big gains in the election, after decades of rules by minority Sunni Muslims. In an effort to thwart the government, in the last month, suspected Sunni insurgent groups have killed election workers, candidates and scores of police and national guardsman.

In Mosul nearly all the election workers resigned and a new coordinator has just arrived, trying to build up a staff, said Brigadier General Ham.

"Insurgents have mounted a gruesome campaign of murder, threats and intimidation. But those events have not deterred us," Ham said.

The targeted violence and the potential change in power have aggravated sectarian tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha R. Alawsy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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