Monday, February 02, 2009

Calm Iraqi Election Reflects Continuing Security Gains

Monday, February 02, 2009 By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor Iraqi soldiers stand guard outside a polling center in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim) ( – Despite a modest turnout, Iraq’s provincial elections Saturday went off relatively smoothly and with no serious violence, reflecting a significantly improved security situation. The improvement is also borne out in U.S. military casualty statistics: Combat-related deaths during January were down almost 90 percent from the same month last year. The last time Iraqis went to the polls in a provincial election, in January 2005, more than 40 people were killed. No election-related deaths were reported on Saturday when 7.5 million Iraqis – about 51 percent of registered voters – went to the polls to fill 440 seats on governing councils in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. The autonomous northern Kurdish provinces, along with Kirkuk, did not take part. In contrast to a 2005 campaign and voting marked by fear and secrecy and a boycott by the Sunni minority, Saturday’s election involved 14,400 candidates and saw some robust and open political debate. Preliminary results will not be available for several days, but a coalition allied to Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is predicted to fare well. Electoral commission chairman Faraj al-Haidari reported that turnout ranged from 65 percent in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad to 40 percent in Anbar, the large Sunni-dominated western province. Security was provided by Iraqi army and police, with coalition troops playing a lower profile, supporting role. “Our mission today is to allow the Iraqis to completely take the lead on this election process, and we will be out in sector for support if they need us,” said 1st Lt. Jeff Nelson of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. top military commander Gen. Ray Odierno in a joint statement congratulated the authorities, electoral commission and security forces, saying the election marked “a significant milestone for the people of Iraq, and are a major step forward in Iraq’s democratic development.” An Iraqi municipality worker removes election campaign posters in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009, a day after provincial elections took place. (AP Photo) Congratulations also came from U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, Odierno’s predecessor, who praised “the courage and resolve of the Iraqi people who walked miles to a polling station and braved long lines and security concerns.” President Obama in an NBC television interview Sunday described the election as highly significant and said it showed that Iraqis were ready to assume more security responsibility. He also signaled that the administration was preparing to announce formally its troop deployment plans for both Iraq and Afghanistan. Saturday’s election came at the end of a month in which 16 U.S. service personnel were reported to have been killed in Iraq, four of them in an air crash in Salahuddin province on January 26. Four of the month’s deaths were combat-related, according to Pentagon data. This marks a dramatic drop (88.2 percent) from the same month a year ago, when 34 combat-related deaths were reported. January 2007 saw 78 combat-related fatalities. Monthly total casualty rates (combat-related and otherwise) have been in the teens since last October (14 in December, 17 in November and 14 in October), following a six-month high in September when 25 U.S. soldiers were killed, including seven in a non-combat related helicopter crash on Sept. 18.

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