Q+A-Can Iraq protect its election from violence?
Thu Feb 25, 2010 12:02am EST

Credit: Reuters

By Michael Christie

BAGHDAD, Feb 25 (Reuters) - The Iraqi affiliate of al Qaeda threatened this month to prevent Iraq's March 7 election at any cost, using primarily "military" means to stop what it called a farce aimed at cementing Shi'ite Muslim domination over Sunnis.

Even before the warning many Iraqis expected a major assault to occur before the vote, perhaps on the scale of devastating and meticulously coordinated suicide bombings of well-protected targets in Baghdad in August, October, December and January.


Both U.S. and Iraqi security officials take the threats from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq seriously.

The ISI is believed by intelligence analysts to have been created by al Qaeda in Iraq as a local umbrella group for insurgent organisations, intended to help it dispel the notion that al Qaeda was dominated by foreigners. It has become the principle mouthpiece for al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq.

The violent groups have been weakened considerably in the past two years, and the end of all-out sectarian war in much of Iraq has deprived their fighters of places to hide.

The U.S. military believes al Qaeda in Iraq is now run by a small core of five to 10 seasoned insurgents.

They no longer have the capability to maintain a high tempo of attacks like the daily drumbeat of bombings that wracked Iraq just a year ago, and have instead corralled their resources to launch less frequent, but more devastating, assaults.

Judging by the gap between the previous attacks on public buildings and hotels in Baghdad on Aug. 19, Oct. 25, Dec. 8 and Jan. 25, the insurgent group most likely has put together a plan for a significant operation in the run-up to election day.

The targets could be anything -- government buildings are better protected now after the previous attacks, as are the capital's few hotels. Hospitals, schools that will be used as voting stations and soft targets like markets remain vulnerable.

Analysts say all bets are off if insurgents destroy a major Shi'ite shrine. The destruction of the golden domed mosque in Samarra in 2006 set off the worst of the sectarian war. Shi'ite Mosques are now among the most protected sites in the country.

In addition to attacks by Sunni insurgents, there is also the ever-present possibility of political violence between supporters of rival parties or coalitions. Iraq remains crowded with heavily armed and politically affiliated militia.


A controversy over handheld explosives detectors that the British government has banned from export and which critics say are little better than divining rods has not stopped the Iraqi security forces from relying heavily on them.

Otherwise, Iraq's defences against insurgent attacks consist mainly of multiple static checkpoints.

Vehicles are searched at random, sometimes with bomb-sniffing dogs. Iraqis have a cultural aversion to dogs and do not like using them against people.

The U.S. military commander, General Ray Odierno, says the Iraqi authorities recently decided to deploy more dogs.

Iraq will restrict vehicle traffic in city centres on election day and ban trucks, horse-drawn carts and motorcycles. Voters will largely have to walk to ballot stations.

The car ban helped ensure no major attacks occurred during a provincial election last January, but made voting difficult.

The U.S. military, which still has just under 100,000 troops in Iraq ahead of a planned withdrawal by the end of 2011, will act as a backup to the Iraqi security forces, which consist of around 416,000 police and 255,000 soldiers.

U.S. military spokesman Major General Steve Lanza says their main task will be to protect Western election observers. But U.S. troops will also serve as a rapid reaction force if needed.

The U.S. military continues to operate monitoring platforms that are kept aloft over Baghdad by airships. Information gleaned from them is shared with Iraqi security forces.

Sophisticated technology allows the U.S. military to pinpoint within seconds the launch sites of rockets or mortars.

U.S. officials say Iraqi forces have increased the pressure on insurgent networks, and there have been arrests and seizures of weapons in recent weeks. But Iraq's intelligence, forensics and counterinsurgency capabilities remain underdeveloped.


A major attack in the run-up to the election could scare Iraqis away from venturing out to vote.

It could also harm Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has partly staked his chances of re-election on claiming credit for a sharp fall in violence in the last two years.

The major bombings since August have undermined public confidence in the security forces and sown doubts about the ability of Maliki's government to keep people safe.