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Security Good as Millions of Iraqis Cast Constitution Ballots

By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2005 – With Iraqi election officials and Iraqi security forces leading the way, millions of Iraqis streamed to the polls today to vote on their country's constitution.

Officials reported that scattered incidents of violence early on in the voting that were quickly squelched by Iraqi security forces. Coalition forces are supporting the Iraqis with perimeter checkpoints and crowd control.

Officials in Iraq said security has been tight and involves a three-stage inspection system that kicks in before voters arrive at the polling sites. No one with bags, cell phones or packages may enter the polling areas, they said.

"From my vantage point, the Iraqi security forces have a good plan to protect the Iraqi people on referendum day," said Army Lt. Col. Steven Merkel, commander of 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

He said the officials have worked on the plan for weeks. Iraqi Police and Public Order Brigade forces began training for possible election-day crises or terrorist attacks long ago, Merkel said. Iraqi and coalition forces worked through a variety of potential scenarios, with the intent of deterring attacks and minimizing disruptions.

The election really began a few days ago, when, throughout Iraq, election officials moved polling materials from warehouses to polling centers.

"This operation is 100 percent Iraqi," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Lewandowski, whose Task Force Baghdad civil affairs team helped monitor election preparations. "We don't touch the ballots, we don't move the ballots; and we don't secure them."

Polling sites reported relatively little violence in at least the first five hours of voting. Proactive security operations by Iraqi and coalition forces apparently have helped to avert much potential terrorist activity, officials said.

For example, Iraqi Army troops discovered an arms cache and detained three suspects on Oct. 14 near Khalidiyah.

Troops from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Intervention Force were conducting a sweep when the cache was found. The Iraqi soldiers searched the area and collared three military-aged males responsible for the cache.

The cache contained three mortar rounds and an assortment of C4 explosive, 7.62 mm ammunition, a detonation cord, and blasting caps, officials said.

The suspects are being detained by authorities for further questioning. No injuries or damages were reported.

Moreover, Iraqi army and police units in the Baghdad area reported at least four separate and scattered small-arms fire incidents and one rocket attack on Oct. 14. Yet, no injuries or property damage resulted from any of these attacks, officials said.

Similarly, Iraqi police arrived on the scene of a terrorist attack in west Baghdad at 7:30 a.m. today after receiving reports of an improvised explosive device attack. One Iraqi policeman was wounded in the attack.

At roughly 9:15 a.m. today., Iraqi Army Soldiers reported that a rocket was detonated near two polling sites in north-central Baghdad, but without inflicting any casualties or damage.

Iraqi army soldiers and police quickly responded to these incidents in order to protect voters. Coalition forces stayed in the background and performed perimeter security operations.

Coalition forces are being wary. Task Force Baghdad Soldiers detained 11 suspected terrorists at a checkpoint in Yusufiyah early this afternoon. The suspected terrorists were found to possess three 125-millimeter projectiles inside their blue van, officials said.

Election officials said voter turnout was high throughout Iraq.

"It almost seems like a holiday" here in Baghdad, said Army Capt. Norm Stevenson, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. "There are kids playing soccer in the streets and families out and about walking around."

In fact, due to high voter turnout, two of the polling sites in Abu Ghraib temporarily ran out of ballots. Capt. Marc E. Perlini, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment public affairs officer, said local election official coordinated for additional ballots and voting resumed shortly.

A similar "problem" was encountered in the Ninewa Province, in northwestern Iraq, where tens of thousands of Iraqis lined up to vote. Two hours after polls opened, Independent Electoral Commission officials at one of the polling stations reported that they were running out of ballots.

Iraqi police coordinated a rush re-supply of ballots and the voting continued uninterrupted. Officials attribute the high voter turnout in Ninewa to the excellent security provided by more than 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and police.

"The people of Tal Afar are very happy to have this opportunity to vote and hope that, after today's elections, all of Iraq is unified together as one voice," said Tal Afar Mayor Najem.

"Yesterday, I said to all of the people, 'Go to the polls and refuse terrorism,'" Najem said. "The terrorists made their voice with the car bombing; but the people of Tall Afar answered back by going to the polls."

The people, he added, "showed that they were not afraid to stand up to the terrorists by voting. I am very proud of the people." The mayor also expressed his in pride in the Iraqi Security Forces for "their professionalism and service throughout the election day."

The Ninewa Province and cities of Tal Afar, Sinjar, Bi'aj and Rabiyah were hotbeds of terrorist activity and thus the object of recent operations by coalition forces. The province issafer, they said and that's why the number of polling stations available for the entire province increased from 17 in January to 58 today.

Tal Afar had Iraq's second lowest voter turnout in January - second only to Fallujah. But today, the citizens of Tal Afar came out en masse to vote, with their purple fingers raised, officials said. The purple ink stain indicates that a citizen has voted and is designed to prevent duplicative voting.

In fact, a crowd of voters in Tal Afar gathered to celebrate their day of democracy. They chanted, "Say no to terrorism!" officials said.

One woman was asked whether she was afraid that terrorists might spot her ink-stained finger. "I don't care about the terrorists; this is what I believe in!" she said. ##end##

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