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Officials Fear Calm in Southern Iraq Could be Short-Lived

During the run-up to Iraq's landmark election, the Shia-dominated south has largely been spared from the extreme levels of violence seen in central Iraq's so-called Sunni triangle and the ethnically divided city of Mosul. But Iraqi security forces fear the calm in southern Iraq could be short-lived, and the danger could come from several different directions.

Security is so tight in Az Zubayr that visiting journalists are forbidden to take pictures inside the town's Iraqi Army base. Army commanders fear that publishing any photos at all might give terrorists valuable intelligence on the layout of the camp.

So far, the level of violence here has been lower than in turbulent central Iraq. But southern Iraq has seen its share of car bombings, political assassinations and other attacks. Recently, someone started passing out leaflets in nearby Basra, threatening to kill anyone who votes in Sunday's election.

Az Zubayr is about 20 kilometers from Iraq's second city of Basra, and its religious makeup roughly mirrors that of the country as a whole. Like most of southern Iraq, the majority of the town's residents are Shiite Muslims. But unlike other towns in the south, it also has a significant Sunni minority, about 35 percent of the population.

The insurgent groups that have vowed to disrupt the elections, and that have been blamed the worst of the violence elsewhere, are largely Sunni. The fear is that those insurgents will want to target Shiite areas in the south on Election Day.

The dean of the local police academy, Colonel Saleem Aja, thinks there could be a surge of violence in Az Zubayr over the next few days.

"We expect there will be some violence before the election, targeting the polling stations and some of the candidates," he said. “The terrorists will want to do this because they think that is the end for them, because the election will destroy them.”

The threat of terrorism is something the colonel knows first-hand. On one day in April, his police academy was hit by two car bombs, killing eight people and wounding more than 30.

Colonel Aja believes Iraq's security situation will improve after the elections, when Iraqis have had a chance to choose their own government for the first time.

But the second-in-command at the neighboring Iraqi Army base called Camp Chindit, Colonel Hassan Mazzid, thinks the real problems will not emerge until the results of the poll are released.

“We think some people want to win the election by force,” he noted. “Some lists will succeed at the polls and some will fail. We think some who fail in the election might make trouble because, as you know, democracy is new to Iraq.”

He says the army will stay on alert after the election to, in his words, “stop those people from making trouble for the new government.”

The colonel's responses grow vague when he is asked which parties he thinks might cause that trouble. But he does not appear to be referring to any Sunni groups, because most of those are boycotting the poll.

Shiite parties, however, have enthusiastically embraced the poll, which they see as a chance to win back control of Iraq after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein and earlier Sunni-led governments.

Several of the leading Shia parties formed militias when they were opposition movements based in neighboring Iran. Although most of those fighters have nominally been absorbed into the new Iraqi security forces, the militias remain an imposing presence in Iraq's political landscape.

It will likely be some time before it becomes clear whether the colonel's prediction could come true. Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday, but it could be weeks before the final results are announced.