Iraqi Forces to Lead Election Security Efforts
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
When Iraqis line up at the polls for tomorrow's elections, the Pentagon says they will see more Iraqi security forces than ever. American commanders say US troops will be largely out of sight. Their role so far has largely been a matter of setting up security barriers and concertina wire and setting up quick reaction forces to respond if violence overcomes Iraqi police and soldiers. NPR's John Hendren is with us now to discuss how the military has planned for the election.
John, why put more Iraqis in the lead, and what's that likely to look like?
JOHN HENDREN reporting:
Well, this is going to be the biggest test of Iraqi security forces since the last election in January. And the reason to put them out front is that this is a time to see what they can do, first of all. Also, in terms of Iraqis, they're going to want to see their own security people there as opposed to the Americans, which really just foment a lot of bad feeling.
Americans are also worried about the Iraqis developing a dependency complex. These guys have to learn how to do this on their own. They will have Americans supporting them, but Central Command chiefs tell me that these troops are more seasoned and more confident than the people we saw a year ago doing the same job.
NORRIS: So if this is a test, it's a high-stakes test. What are American commanders expecting?
HENDREN: Well, the likeliest threats that they're worried about are car bombs, mortar and rocket attacks and suicide car bombers. Interestingly, they're particularly looking out for female suicide car bombers, which we've seen in Amman and elsewhere in recent attacks. The Iraqi government has tried to sort of shut down the country by shutting down roads so that car bombers have a more difficult time moving around. And I'm told by people who've seen it recently that this had led to a kind of eery quiet in Baghdad's streets.
NORRIS: And now there's been a talk of post-election violence. By whom?
HENDREN: Well, I talked to Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, who is in charge of strategy and plans for the US Central Command. And he says that they're worried about groups that may have lost in the elections, didn't do so well. And they're also worried about groups that are just pushing an anti-democratic agenda. We're talking about people like Abu Musab Zarqawi and foreign fighters who really would like to dissuade people from participating in the elections.
NORRIS: A number of Sunni political groups have urged their followers to vote. What's the expected effect of that development on security? Are we likely to see fewer attacks?
HENDREN: Well, the American military's hoping for more Sunni participation because you have Sunni groups on the slate and you've got Sunni imams that have been urging people to vote. If that happens, that means you're likely to see more votes in places like Al Anbar province in the west, which is a largely Sunni province in which I think something like one in three people who were eligible voted last time.
But it's really unclear whether that's going to happen. A lot of these Sunni groups are flying under new banners, so we really don't know if, for instance, there are a lot of people who are following these guys. Some may also fight and still go ahead and participate in the voting process. Some of the military people think there is going to be a good deal of that, insurgents who are also voting in the process. I talked to an analyst who says you just can't believe that the Sunnis have united behind the election process because it's not clear at all that they have.
NORRIS: So just quickly, John, if these security forces, the Iraqi security forces, are put to the test and it turns out that they're outmatched, what happens then?
HENDREN: There's an outer ring of American security forces, and these guys are going to have all the sort of helicopter fire support, tanks, everything they'd need to quell a major confrontation. The idea is that they stay in the background, and it's really considered more of a success if it's the Iraqis who finish up any firefight.
NORRIS: Thank you, John.
HENDREN: Thank you.
NORRIS: NPR's John Hendren.
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