Iraq Gears Up for Jan. 30 National Assembly Elections
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2004 More than 80 percent of eligible Iraqi voters have registered to vote in the Jan. 30 elections, a senior U.S. officer said today in Baghdad, Iraq.
Recent polls indicate that 88 percent of Iraqis want to vote and participate in elections, Air Force Brig. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III, deputy operations director for multinational forces in Iraq, said from Baghdad during an interview with the Pentagon Channel. Lessel said he is confident the election will be possible despite residual violence.
The level of violence is down by about 50 percent from a month ago, he said. However, it is sill slightly above the levels six months ago at the transfer of sovereignty.
"The level of violence is still at an unacceptable level," Lessel said. "We're doing everything that we can to suppress that. The lethality of the attacks is down somewhat, but we also expect a continued increase in violence and attempts by the insurgents to disrupt the elections and to keep the Iraqi people from being able to exercise their democratic freedoms and their right to vote at the end of January."
Free and fair elections could be held today in 15 of 18 provinces, he said, citing Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul as continued focus points for multinational forces.
Though Operation Al Fajr was a success in ridding Fallujah of insurgents, the situation is not quite resolved.
"We're in the transition phase to resume the reconstruction effort (and) to ensure humanitarian assistance," Lessel said. "We're working hard to restore basic services: water, electricity and sewage."
Before citizens return to Fallujah, the city must be made safe from the remaining small pockets of resistance fighters, and unexploded ordnance must be removed. U.S. military forces and a team from the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Minerals are pitching in to help make the city livable again.
"I think we were very successful in taking Fallujah away as a safe haven for the foreign fighters and the terrorists that were operating there for the last six months or more," Lessel said. "This was a center for weapons, a center for command and control, a base of operations for these insurgents who were conducting insurgent operations and violence across all of Iraq."
He said U.S. and Iraqi troops found 400 weapons caches, torture sites and evidence that mosques had been used as fighting locations there.
While concerns exist regarding potential insurgent challenges to upcoming elections, Lessel is confident Multinational Force Iraq has the manpower to handle those challenges effectively.
He noted that about 1,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division have recently arrived in Iraq to help with the security situation. "With these additional forces, we will conduct offensive operations going after the insurgents across the country and trying to provide that secure environment for the elections," Lessel said.
Also, about 10,000 servicemembers have been temporarily extended in Iraq to provide an increase in forces during the run-up to the elections.
The Iraqi forces continue to grow as well, recently graduating 1,400 from the police academy. Iraqi forces will be responsible for securing polling places during the elections. Multinational forces will back them up from a distance with quick-reaction forces available if needed, the general said.
There shouldn't be any question whether Iraqis feel secure enough to proceed with elections, Lessel said. Over 300 entities have registered to participate in elections on the provincial and national levels, Lessel said. Also, more than 50 parties are registered to participate in the Jan. 30 elections for the national assembly.
In fact, he said, it's campaign season in Iraq. "You can see around the country that ads are beginning (and) campaign posters are being put up in cities across Iraq. The people are really excited about these elections and they want to have a voice in their future government," he said. "It's been 50 years since their last free election."
Lessel added that the process does not end with the January elections and neither do the multinational forces' security responsibilities. Security will be provided as the National Assembly is seated in February as well as while the new Iraqi constitution is being drafted throughout the summer. The constitution will be put up for referendum next fall, and elections for constitutional representatives will be held next December.
"This is a long-term process, and it's a journey that the Iraqi people eagerly look forward to taking," Lessel said.
Lessel concluded his interview with holiday tidings to the troops and supporters in the States. "To all the troops that are stationed here in Iraq and those outside the country who are supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, thank you for what you're doing," he said.
"General (George W.) Casey (commander of multinational forces in Iraq) has the utmost confidence in what you're doing and expresses his support and thanks this holiday season," Lessel continued. "Together we will continue this mission, and we will be successful. Happy Holidays."