By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 12, 2009 - U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq's Diyala province are preparing for rising violence amid upcoming provincial elections, an Army commander in Iraq said at a Pentagon news conference today. Army Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said he anticipates an increase in violent activities as the Jan. 31 polling date nears.
"It's pretty clear what they'd be going after," Thompson said, referring to potential election saboteurs. "It's to sway the hearts and the minds, to intimidate those civilians from going and voting."
Thompson, speaking via video teleconference from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, said Diyala province experiences about one "security incident" per week. A typical occurrence includes a bombing with homemade explosives targeting civilians in market areas.
He identified members of al-Qaida and Jaysh al-Mahdi, the militant constituency of the Iranian-influenced Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as the main perpetrators of violence in the region.
To mitigate potential threats, Thompson said, Iraqi security forces have detailed plans for securing polling sites and the routes leading to and from them.
"Al-Qaida, the enemy, the opponent, obviously, has a vote. And he will look for those critical vulnerabilities, if he can find them, and he'll try to exploit those," he said. "Our job is to prevent that from happening."
Iraqi forces are culling "human intelligence" -- word-of-mouth information from local people -- to inform their preparations leading up to the elections.
"The individuals that you talk to on the street are the greatest values, because quite frankly, most of the folks in Diyala province ... want peace, they want stability, they want to move ahead, they want to get this behind them," he said.
Thompson added that combined forces are emphasizing the security of ballots to ensure the accountability and responsibility of the process.
Participants responsible for election security met for six hours yesterday ahead of a rehearsal planned for this week, Thompson said. Iraqi police will act as the "inner cordon" at voting sites and other sensitive locations, with Iraqi soldiers serving a support role as U.S. forces provide the "outer layer."
The colonel characterized the upcoming vote as a moment of great historical and political significance for Iraq, marking the first real opportunity to seat a representative government at the provincial level.
"The 2005 election was to prove that, 'I've got some ink on my finger, and we can actually do this election,'" he said, alluding to iconic images of Iraqis displaying ink-stained fingers indicating a ballot cast in national elections.
But while the January 2005 voting represented the first general election since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, reports of widespread boycotting by Sunni Arabs called into question the vote's legitimacy.
"The 2009 elections are a little bit different," Thompson said. "This is an opportunity to seat governance, [which makes it] a critical period in the history of Iraq, certainly the history of Diyala, to move this place forward, to continue the growth, to continue the stability and prosperity that we're starting to see now in Diyala province."