In the final week before Iraq holds parliament elections, January 30, security is extremely tight.
Although most of northern Iraq has been spared the level of violence experienced in Mosul, both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the private sector have raised security to the highest level. From the border crossing with Turkey, southward, soldiers look over every vehicle and their occupants at frequent checkpoints. Identity papers are checked and questions asked, with the slightest suspicion triggering commands to step out and submit to thorough searches.
The roads in towns and cities are fortified with concrete barriers and other obstructions to prevent suicide car bombs from approaching important buildings. Even modest hotels are ringed by armed security. Registered guests and others who want to enter must undergo personal searches and their luggage is examined thoroughly.
The city of Erbil has especially tight security because of its role as one of the two centers of the Kurdistan Regional Government. When electricity goes out, as it does rather often, security forces tighten their fingers on their weapons, in case the blackout is part of an attack. At the just-opened Hotel Erbil, this reporter watched as a bride in her wedding dress and her party were required to pass through metal detectors.
People in Erbil remember what happened in February, 2004, when twin suicide bombings at the local offices of Kurdistan's two main political parties killed more than 100 people gathered to celebrate the Muslim Eid holiday. Today, there is the ongoing concern that outsiders may come to terrorize the overwhelmingly Kurdish city.
Officials say additional security measures, including strict curfews, will be imposed in this final week before the January 30 Iraqi national elections. They are determined to protect polling places and election officials and to enable people to cast their ballots, without fear of attack. For the Kurdistan region, this election will give its residents a formal role in the governance of Iraq and in the writing of a new permanent constitution. The people here say they want nothing to prevent that long-held dream from becoming a reality.