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US and Iraqi Forces Finalizing Security Plans for Next Week's Referendum

The U.S. military say it is confident that the recent seizures of large weapons caches and the on-going military offensives against insurgents in western Iraq and will help minimize violence in next week's constitutional referendum.

The U.S. military and Iraqi security forces are finalizing plans they believe will be able to create a relatively safe environment for voters and thousands of polling stations in central, west and northern Iraq.

Vehicle traffic will be severely limited in most areas on October 15. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers are expected to establish countless checkpoints, searching for car bombs and potential suicide bombers wearing vests or belts. Streets near polling sites will be closed off with razor wires and concrete barriers.

In the capital Baghdad, where the threat of suicide attacks is the greatest, no civilian vehicles will be allowed on the road that day unless drivers have a special permit.

U.S. Army Major Ray Bossert, whose unit is helping secure voting centers in the notorious Sunni triangle area south of Baghdad, says Iraqi voters will have little choice but to walk long distance to polling sites.

"If they are to vote, we will bring them into a staging area, where they will leave their cars. And from that point on, it is an all-walk zone," he said. "The only thing here moving is Humvees, Iraqi army trucks or election official vehicles."

Similar security measures were used on January 31, when the country held its first democratic elections. Although suicide bombers did stage attacks at several polling sites in Baghdad and elsewhere, casualties were relatively light and the elections were considered a major success.

American military commanders say they believe two large-scale U.S.-led military offensives in the restive Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq should also help tamp down the violence next Saturday.

On Thursday, the spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, Major General Rick Lynch, told reporters that those operations have killed or captured several regional insurgent leaders, destroyed insurgent safe houses and weapons caches.

U.S. soldiers in another Sunni insurgent stronghold near Taji, north of Baghdad, say they recently discovered several large caches of explosives, totaling more than 38,000 kilograms.

Colonel Dave Bishop, whose unit patrols the sprawling rural area, says most of the munitions were found buried in the desert.

"Up here, there are huge caches that we think feed the insurgency in Baghdad," he said. "How we found it was just through some dynamic soldier power. They just drove through the desert and found some areas that looked kind of different. Soldiers notice that stuff and they started poking around with shovels."

Still, the commander of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, Major General William Webster, cautioned that Baghdad could still see a dramatic spike in insurgent attacks between now and next Saturday.

"We know that Baghdad is considered the center of gravity, the center of the Iraqi government and it holds a fourth of the population of the country," he said. "So this is the place where all roads lead to, and we believe that the insurgents will try to make a surge in their attacks inside Baghdad because of its value in trying to convince the people that this government cannot protect them."

The Pentagon announced Friday that it has temporarily increased its force in Iraq from about 138,000 to 152,000 troops to provide extra security for the October 15 referendum.

But the U.S. military says it will be Iraqi security forces, who will take the lead in protecting the voting process. As they did during elections in January, American troops are expected to provide support for Iraqi forces, but only when needed.