Authorities in Iraq have imposed an unprecedented security clampdown during the last hours before the country's landmark election. Multi-national troops and Iraqi security forces are preparing for the worst. As VOA's Challiss McDonough reports from a windblown military tent in Basra, tensions are high even in areas where the violence has been relatively low.
British troops are distributing hand-held metal detectors to police units charged with protecting polling stations. A soldier teaches an Iraqi policeman the proper scanning technique.
The Iraqi police have the main task of protecting the polling stations. In Basra, they are at 100 percent force strength, with officers posted at the polling centers 24 hours a day. For days, they have been eating and sleeping at their police stations.
The British troops in the area say their job is not to patrol the voting centers themselves, but rather to support the Iraqi police by keeping a heavy military presence in the surrounding neighborhoods, and being ready to respond quickly at the first sign of trouble.
In the Hamdoun area, a suburb east of Basra, Captain Captain Phil Taneborne of the Royal Dragoon Guards and his unit spent Friday afternoon distributing metal detectors and checking to make sure everything is in place for the poll.
At several polling stations, police and election officials complain of a lack of flashlights, which they need at night since most of the polling stations are in schools with no generators to power the lights. A few officers ask for more bullets for their weapons.
Captain Taneborne is also collecting information about possible trouble spots that British troops should keep a special eye on. At one polling station that has already been attacked several times, the police officer in charge draws a map of two nearby neighborhoods that he says could be the source of more problems, explaining the situation to the captain through an interpreter.
"So they already have information that maybe at night they will attack this polling station. Maybe," said the interpreter.
"Tell him I take his information very seriously," replied Capt. Taneborne. "Are there any other areas that are a threat?"
During the day, the mood in the city is fairly positive. Children run after the British armored Land Rovers, waving, smiling and shouting hello. The mainly Shiite people of southern Iraq have been looking forward to the election, seeing it as a chance to regain control of the country after decades of oppression. Campaign posters adorn walls all over town, mainly urging voters to cast their ballots for the List 169, the popular coalition of Shiite religious parties.
But after night falls, a strict curfew goes into effect, and the tension is evident. Every night, there have been a string of incidents at or near polling stations, mainly shootings, small bombs or hand grenades. Capt. Taneborne says they are rarely serious enough to really threaten the election itself, but the attacks do seem aimed at intimidating election workers and police.
Friday night, two explosions have been reported. One is near a vehicle checkpoint, down the road from a polling center and also near a police station that was hit by a car bomb several weeks ago. Police believe it was either a landmine or a package of dynamite. The unit cordons off the area in case there is more unexploded ordnance nearby.
The unit moves on to try to find the second explosion. On the way there, there is another incident. Police have stopped a car on the road after the curfew. The British soldiers are confused at first, because the suspect vehicle is another police car. They stay on alert and keep the squad car in their gun sights. The police vehicle is from another sector, and doesn't belong here. Terrorists have been known to steal police cars or paint other vehicles to look like them, and then use them to attack police stations.
In this case, it turns out that the squad car is just trying to transport a very ill man to the hospital. After a 15-minute standoff, it proceeds slowly on its way.
The soldiers arrive at the Abu Al Khasib police station, where officers have detained two men they suspect are responsible for one of the explosions. Then they go to find the site of the second explosion. After some travel, they end up right back where they started, at the vehicle checkpoint. It turns out that two people reported the same explosion from different directions, and the soldiers are relieved to learn that they will be able to return to base after a very long day.
But for the Iraqi police, the night is not over yet. They stay on alert at police stations and polling centers until dawn.