Iraq prepares for provincial elections, Saturday, amid some tension and scattered violence, but top officials say that they're confident that polls will be held without major disruptions. Citizens in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces will vote for the first time since 2005.
At least three political candidates were shot and killed in the run-up to polling, creating anxiety among top officials, who have imposed an overnight curfew and closed off land, sea and air borders to maintain order.
General Aidan Khalaf Qader, director of Iraq's Electoral Security Commission, describes the measures being taken. He says that the [Interior Ministry] will begin applying security measures, including an overnight curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and vehicle traffic will be restricted Saturday, especially in the vicinity of polling places.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qader Mohammed Jassem made a special point to visit the war-torn northern city of Mosul, where al-Qaida is still present, and where violence has citizens on edge. Jassem says that Iraqi security forces are on alert to protect them.
He says that his men are ready to protect the citizens of Mosul, and that many steps are being taken to do this ... [Iraqi security forces], he adds, will also protect those who are working to rebuild the country, as well as those who have come to invest.
Iraqi government television showed police and army officers voting early, in a trial run for Saturday's vote, and smiling soldiers waved their thumbs, covered with ink, to show that they had cast their ballots.
Hassan, a voter from Diyala province, told Iraqi TV that he was enthusiastic about voting, and hoped that the best candidates would win:
He says that he's planning to vote for candidates who have the expertise to run the country well, and he hopes they win a majority ... so that they can lead the country towards a better future and deliver the people [from their current plight].
Over 14,000 candidates, including a sizable number of women, will be contesting 440 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Meanwhile, Interior Ministry spokesman, General Abdul-Karim Khalaf indicated that Thursday's decision not to renew the contract of U.S. private security firm Blackwater was a step towards "restoring Iraq's sovereignty."
U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, also noted in a just-released report that security contractors involved in protecting Iraqi rebuilding efforts may need to redeploy in 2009.
Under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that came into force this month, foreign guards no longer have immunity from Iraqi law and will be subject to new restrictions introduced by the Iraqi government.