The U.S. military is working with Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government to provide security for the elections scheduled for Sunday, as daily attacks by insurgents continue. American commanders say Iraqi forces will have a key role on Election Day, but the coalition will provide forces designed to deter or respond to any attack.
The insurgents in Iraq have been fulfilling predictions, and their own threats, of an increase in violence in the days leading up to the election. And there are concerns that the insurgents will also carry out threats to disrupt the voting on election day itself.
The result is a massive security effort involving foreign forces and Iraq's fledgling military and police units.
"The Iraqi security forces will take the lead," said U.S. Marine Lieutenant General John Satler, who commands coalition forces in the vast provinces west of Baghdad, including the violence-prone towns of Fallujah and Ramadi in what has become known as the Sunni Triangle.
"In those cases where it's possible, they will have the inside cordon. They will definitely have the actual physical security inside the polling sites. But we will be where we need to be, in the strength we need to be. And we'll move where we have to go as things start to unfold on election day and prior to election day," added General Satler.
Officials say that approach could become a prototype for future security operations in Iraq, with intensified training of Iraqi forces so they can take the leading role in more and more situations, with planning help and backup from U.S. and coalition forces. General Satler and other coalition commanders in other parts of Iraq say their goal is to help provide security so Iraqis can vote, without appearing to take over the election. They have also been deeply involved in making the election security plan, and in conducting pre-election operations against the insurgents.
"It's important that this election be an Iraqi election, for Iraqis, by Iraqis. It's important that the 43,000 Iraqi security forces in my area are in charge, in control, conducting operations to secure those four provinces. We will certainly support them," said U.S. Army Major General John Batiste, who commands coalition forces in a four-province area north and east of Baghdad, including the rest of the Sunni triangle, and anti-coalition strongholds like Samara and Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit.
Both generals say there will be successful elections in their areas in northeastern and western Iraq, and that anyone who wants to vote will have the opportunity to do so. But experts predict a low voter turnout in the parts of Iraq populated mostly by members of the country's Sunni Muslim minority, partly because some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the election, and partly because of security concerns.
At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, democracy expert Marina Ottaway says in spite of the security effort, the fear of terrorism will have an impact on the election.
"We can almost be certain that there will not be sufficient security in the main cities of the Sunni triangle because I think it's beyond the capacity of the U.S. and the Iraqi security forces at this point to maintain the security in those cities," she said. "The main point of the elections is that they are going to be very, very problematic in the areas where, in a sense, we need them the most. That is, in the areas where the insurgents are operating."
Ms. Ottaway says in spite of the effort to provide security for the election, and to convince Iraqi Sunnis to vote, most Sunnis will likely come away from the election process feeling that their views are not sufficiently represented in the new Iraqi government.
If that happens, it will be a disappointment to coalition commanders like U.S. Army Brigadier General Carter Ham, who has the job of ensuring security in the far north of Iraq. His area includes the Kurdish region, where voting is expected to be heavy and relatively smooth, and also the mixed Arab and Kurdish city of Mosul, where violence late last year led to a breakdown of the Iraqi security forces.
General Ham's approach to this Sunday's voting reflects the attitudes of his colleagues elsewhere in Iraq, a combination of pragmatism and defiance.
"On the 30th of January there will be elections in Mosul, and there will be elections throughout Nineveh Province. It's not going to be easy, but it will be done," he said.
The American commanders in Iraq expect insurgent attacks to continue this week, on Election Day, and beyond. The amount of success that they and their Iraqi counterparts have in providing security for the election will be a big factor in determining the voter turnout. And experts say the turnout will be a crucial factor in whether most Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, respect the results.