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Iraqi Government Considering Strict Security Measures Ahead of Polls

Illustrating the difficulty of holding elections amid widespread violence, Iraq's interim government is reportedly considering a days-long security lockdown in large areas of the country prior to the January 30 balloting. One of Iraq's most deadly insurgent groups has renewed its vow to attack polling stations if Iraqis do not boycott the elections.

Iraq's interim government has not yet announced details of its security plans for the elections. But sources close to the Interior Ministry say several measures, which may be implemented days ahead of the voting on January 30, are being actively considered.

One measure is to severely limit the movement of people between cities. The Iraqi government plans to issue temporary travel passes to a limited group of people, such as journalists and election workers. People without these passes are not likely to be able to cross police checkpoints.

Another measure being considered is to switch off the country's mobile phone network to hamper the insurgents' ability to communicate and coordinate attacks.

Election officials, provincial governors, and Iraqi forces have also developed their own plans for securing thousands of polling sites throughout Iraq.

Major General John Batiste
On Thursday, U.S. Army Major General John Batiste, whose troops will back up Iraqi forces guarding sites in north-central Iraq, told reporters that he is confident that Iraqi officials in Salahadin, Diyala, Tamim, and Kurdish Suleimanyiah provinces have made adequate preparations to hold successful elections.

"They have done this in all four of our provinces to exacting detail," he said. "They know exactly where the polling stations are and they have developed plans to secure them. Not only that, they've worked hard to rehearse the plans at the provincial level, at the city level, right down to the police station level. All of this is going on every day."

In the past week, both President Bush and Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi expressed concern that continuing violence in four of Iraq's 18 provinces, including the Sunni Muslim-dominated Salahadin province, would make voting in those areas difficult at best.

U.S. and Iraqi officials blame followers of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, Sunni Muslim radicals, and foreign terrorists for the daily car bombings, assassinations, and other attacks in Iraq. The attacks are aimed at scaring voters away from elections, which stand to increase the power of the country's long-oppressed Shi'ite Muslim majority.

The violence has taken an appalling toll, killing more than 1600 Iraqi policemen and police recruits, soldiers, politicians, election workers and civilians in the past four months.

In the latest pre-election mayhem, gunmen in the volatile northern city of Mosul opened fire late Thursday on a vehicle carrying three officials of a leading Kurdish political party. All three men were killed.

Hours earlier, gunmen killed the director of an election commission office in the Khadamiyah neighborhood in northern Baghdad.

For the second time in two weeks, insurgents in Baghdad tried to kill the head of a secular political group called the Democratic Islamic Party. The party's leader, Mithal al-Alousi, says a hand grenade was thrown into his house early Wednesday morning, causing extensive damage but no injuries.

"They are very willing to kill us. They are scared," he said. "They will never stop these kinds of attacks against the people who believe that peace is the best way to build a new Iraq."

In a statement posted on an Internet Web site, one of Iraq's most militant Sunni Muslim groups, Ansar al-Sunnah, took responsibility for Wednesday's attack near Baghdad, which killed a top aide to the country's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Ayatollah Sistani is a major supporter of Iraqi elections, calling voting a "religious duty" for all Shi'ites.

Ansar al-Sunnah warned all Iraqi voters to stay away on election day or face death at the polling stations.