U.S. and Iraqi officials are praising the performance of the Iraqi security services during Sunday's election. They say the plan for Iraqi forces to take the lead in providing security, with coalition forces in reserve, worked well, and demonstrated the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi forces.
It was one of the largest election security operations ever conducted, and Iraqi forces were given the key positions in and around more than five thousand polling stations across the country. U.S. and other coalition forces stayed farther away, ready to respond in an emergency, and provided an airborne and ground-based show of force designed to deter insurgents from making attacks. They had also conducted extensive operations against insurgents in recent weeks, and played a key role in planning and preparing Sunday's security operation.
But it was Iraqi forces that were in the lead on Sunday, and Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hasan al-Naqib says they succeeded. "All of those who questioned the ability of the Iraqi security forces, I'm quite sure they were proven wrong yesterday. Many expected huge sabotage and terrorist attacks, but yesterday was the result of efforts put in through six months and they were fruitful results," he said in Baghdad.
There were several attacks around the country on Sunday, and more than 40 people died, about half of them members of the Iraqi security services. But U.S. Brigadier General Erv Lessel says it could have been much worse. "There were seven suicide bombers that tried to kill Iraqi citizens. And they were all stopped at checkpoints by Iraqi security forces, who held them and kept them away from polling centers," he said.
At least one Iraqi policeman was killed when he stopped a suicide bomber who was approaching a polling station. The bomber detonated his bomb, killing himself and the police officer. Minister al-Naqib says some of the insurgents attacking on Sunday were from outside the country. "As for the foreign terrorists, a Syrian was killed. A Sudanese also committed a suicide attack. We detained a Yemeni and two Saudis were also detained. We detained one Egyptian also," he said.
Sunday's election was an important test for the Iraqi security forces, which have been built from nothing since the old army and police forces were disbanded after the U.S.-led invasion. The new forces have had many well-publicized problems, including a lack of discipline and skill, even after basic training by coalition forces. In the northern town of Mosul, the police force fled in the face of insurgent attacks as recently as November.
But General Lessel says it was a different story on Sunday. "The security measures that were put into place [Sunday] worked very well. It allowed all of the Iraqi people who wanted to come out and vote the opportunity to do that. The Iraqi security forces proved that they were extremely capable in preventing terrorist acts, and providing the security necessary for the Iraqi people to go to the polls," he said.
The Iraqi forces even showed off their tank force, which had not been seen on the streets since the fall of Baghdad nearly two years ago. General Lessel says the new Iraqi forces are improving their capabilities in a variety of fields, including armored operations, and will continue to expand their duties in the months to come.
That is important to the new strategy stated by President Bush and other officials. They say the focus of U.S. operations in Iraq will be to finish the training and equipping of Iraq's 130 thousand soldiers, policemen and national guardsmen so they can take full control of security in the country as soon as possible. That process is expected to take years, but officials want the first steps taken within a few months, and steady progress after that. General Lessel says the detailed plan for intensified training of Iraqi forces will be announced soon.
Senior U.S. military officers say although Sunday's voting was smoother than had been expected, they believe the insurgents will now try to increase their attacks, with some of the newly elected officials possibly becoming targets. They say coalition forces will continue to fight the insurgency as they work to train Iraqi forces to take over the job.