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Advance planning of U.S. forces helps elections go off relatively smoothly

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Although he'd toiled for weeks planning for every contingency, Capt. Rodney Schmucker figured there was an even chance he'd be spending election day shooting it out on the streets with insurgents and cleaning up after suicide bombers.

Instead, he and his men from the 1st Cavalry Division wiled away large blocks of time Sunday in southern Baghdad lingering with jubilant Iraqi civilians and jostling with their children in what often looked like a giant block party.

It was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn't just happenstance. U.S. forces in Iraq carried off what must have been one of the most elaborate security operations in modern history, even as they labored to give the impression that Iraqi army and police units were doing the heavy lifting by protecting thousands of polling places.

The plan worked almost perfectly. There was violence—44 people were killed in attacks on the polls—but nothing like what had been expected, and nothing that put a damper on an impressive voter turnout.

And Iraqi security forces performed far better than most experts predicted.

Schmucker, a 30-year-old company commander from Latrobe, Pa, didn't set foot in any of his district's two dozen polling stations, all of which were guarded by Iraqis. That rule held true across much of the country, and millions of Iraqi voters got to see their newly trained army, national guard and police units as a guarantor of their safety. Iraqi soldiers and officers searched every voter before he or she got near a polling place, making it all but impossible for explosives-laden suicide bombers to slip through.

"I saw people smiling, and they are proud of their army," said Col. Mohammed Hussein of the Iraqi Intervention Force. "The doubt is removed from their hearts."

That was among the goals of U.S. planners. But to a reporter embedded for the last three weeks with Schmucker and his men, who control a swath of southern Baghdad that includes half a million people, it was clear that the U.S. military was involved in nearly every security-related detail of Sunday's election, down to the number of Iraqi soldiers at each polling place and the types of weapons they would carry.

The Americans' meticulous planning and relentless street presence, coupled with a national curfew that denied insurgents the roads by shutting down a California-sized country of 24 million people to vehicle traffic, appeared to be the key to Sunday's relative calm. It had to rank as one of the seminal U.S. successes in an 18-month occupation marked mainly by setbacks.

"We disrupted (insurgents) big time beforehand—we just started going after anything that looked even halfway suspicious to us," Schmucker said. "I think the curfew and traffic restrictions had a lot to do with it, too—and the hard work of soldiers, who spent hours putting down concrete barriers. And I have to give credit to Iraqi security forces. They did their part, and when we asked them to do something they made it happen."

That outcome was by no means assured. As late as Saturday, commanders from four separate Iraqi forces in southern Baghdad's Doura district were not sure how they would guard the polling places, and they could coordinate only by Baghdad's spotty cell-phone network. They turned to the Americans for equipment, weapons and guidance.

Schmucker and some of his soldiers spent each day during the last week shuttling back and forth between the police station and the main voter-registration site, wheedling, negotiating and, in the end, directing how Iraqi forces would be arrayed.

They also labored late into several nights placing concrete barriers and concertina wire at positions they would man, and at polling places for use by Iraqi soldiers and police officers.

"We're just synchronizing and coordinating," Schmucker would say, grinning. "This is their election."

Perhaps, but it was his security operation. The West Point graduate began election day before dawn, when he stopped by his district's central election headquarters, in a school, to make sure ballots would be distributed to polling places.

He ended it after dark, when he dispatched a platoon to escort Iraqi security forces and election workers who were gathering completed ballots and taking them to a central location. That happened after one of his superiors, Maj. Cameron Leiker, gathered Iraqi commanders together and spelled out in detail exactly how the U.S. military wanted the ballots collected.

Throughout the day Schmucker's men patrolled the streets waiting to respond to attacks that mostly never materialized. Throngs of children and many adults cheered and waved as the captain's Humvee convoy rolled past, in both Shia and Sunni neighborhoods.

U.S. Abrams tanks sat at every major intersection. Helicopter gunships prowled the skies. And Americans gave something else: Their lives. At least 11 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Friday, including three from Schmucker's battalion.


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