Corrects timing of vehicle ban in paragraph 7
By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will seal its borders, shut airports, ban vehicles and deploy thousands of security forces when people go to the polls Saturday to choose provincial leaders, officials said Monday.
Iraqis will be voting for the first time in three years, putting to the test a recent sharp fall in sectarian violence and insurgent attacks unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is making a big effort to campaign in the hope of winning support in provinces which are largely in the hands of rivals.
The vote also will offer Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last provincial elections a chance to assume a share of local power.
Officials are determined not to allow bombers to disrupt the election, which will set the stage for a parliamentary vote later in the year and show whether Iraqi forces are capable of ensuring peace as U.S. troops begin to draw down.
“We have enough security forces, they are well trained and they will protect every single one of the polling stations,” Major-General Aydin Khalid, head of Iraq’s electoral security committee, told a news conference in Baghdad.
A vehicle ban will take effect from 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Friday and be lifted at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT) Sunday, February 1, he said. Only vehicles belonging to electoral officials, security forces and accredited media will be exempt.
The ban was likely aimed at preventing car bombs, which are still a widely used militant tactic, although such attacks have fallen sharply as security improves across Iraq.
“People can move very freely but they must walk,” Khalid said.
The provincial vote is seen as a crucial test of Iraq’s stability after years of sectarian bloodshed between majority Shi’ite Muslims and once dominant Sunni Arabs nearly tore the country apart.
Despite widespread predictions of a surge in violence as the vote approaches, attacks across the country have been relatively muted. Two candidates have been shot dead and the deputy head of a Sunni Arab party was blown up by a suicide bomber.
The election will choose provincial councils in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The councils in turn pick powerful governors.
Around 15 million of Iraq’s approximately 28 million people have registered to vote, including more than 700,000 of the roughly 2.5 million Iraqis internally displaced after being driven from their homes by violence.
Only police, not the military, will be allowed in or near polling stations, Khalid said. Soldiers will be deployed in force, but away from the voting centers.
The roughly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will stay in their barracks, although Khalid said they would be on stand-by to help Iraqi forces if requested to do so in an emergency.
In greater Baghdad alone, some 80,000 security agents will be deployed to prevent violence at 1,735 polling stations, the capital’s security spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi said.
Reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Michael Roddy