American troops prepare to step back as Iraqis go to the polls on Sunday
January 29, 2005
RAMADI, Iraq — U.S. troops in Iraq have have been instrumental in attempting to stabilize the country before Sunday’s national elections. But once the polls open, they will be asked to play a secondary role.
At polling stations throughout the country, U.S. troops will provide the outer cordon of security, with Iraqi forces guarding the voting centers. And with political sensitivity about the election process high, the military has been educating its soldiers on what they should and should not say or do in the run-up to the vote.
“DO appear completely NEUTRAL in all matters relating to the Iraqi Elections,” reads part of a “Soldier Information Card” distributed to troops throughout Iraq.
“DON’T appear to dislike any Iraqi parties or candidates,” it later advises.
The message started at the top and worked its way down through the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya neighborhood. Battalion officers down to platoon and squad leaders were given briefings and shown Powerpoint slides covering basic election information. They then met with the soldiers of their platoons and squads.
“Basically, we’re not supposed to support any parties if anyone asks us any questions,” said Spc. James Bonanno of Company A’s 1st Platoon.
But, he said, those questions aren’t normally forthcoming.
“The Iraqis don’t usually ask us questions about the election,” he said. “They’re more interested in us than in what’s going on in their country. I’m sure if I spoke Arabic, they’d probably start a conversation about [the elections].”
“The majority don’t speak English well enough to get into conversations,” said Pvt. Ralph Young of 1st Platoon. “The extent of our conversations are, ‘What’s your name, where are you from?’”
Staff Sgt. James Mastrodomenico, a squad leader and mortar section leader with Company C, said the information card has come in handy in his dealings with prospective Iraqi voters, although most of the questions deal with election security.
And election security is key in the battalion’s area.
The 4-31 soldiers have nearly 50 percent of the polling sites in the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division’s area of operations, which covers most of northwest Baghdad and Abu Ghraib.
Mastrodomenico said that at one prospective polling site, a man and his three children who live nearby approached and asked if the building was a polling site and if he should move out for the elections.
“The biggest thing when we get approached is, ‘Are the elections going to happen?’” he said. “We tell them, ‘Of course,’ and that they should get out and have their voices heard.”
Soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, a 2nd Infantry Division unit that deployed from South Korea to Iraq, are responsible for polling stations in the restive city of Ramadi, where insurgents and U.S. forces clash nearly every day.
In recent days, the soldiers have been patrolling with Iraqi forces. They have largely found it easier to let the Iraqis hand out the election material, both because of the language barrier and the perception the Iraqis are leading the process.
“To see the Iraqi soldiers here is really good for the people. And it shows them that we are working toward a point where Iraqis will eventually be responsible for their own security,” said 2nd Lt. Tad Tsuneyoshi, a platoon leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
At traffic checkpoints and during cordon-and-search operations, the Iraqi troops are the ones encouraging the Iraqis to vote. At times, though, the advantages of having Iraqi troops are lost in the enthusiasm for the upcoming elections.
The Iraqis, not bound by the same rules as the Americans, are more than willing to debate politics with their countrymen, often at length, resulting in a slowdown of operations.
Soldier info card
DO appear completely NEUTRAL in all matters relating to the Iraqi Elections.
DO hand out Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq-approved election information materials when Iraqis ask you about Iraqi Elections.
DO refer Iraqis with election questions to their local Independent Election Commission of Iraq office (when established) or www.ieciraq.org.
DO follow published Rules of Engagement (ROE).
DO report all observed “political” gatherings to your chain of command.
DO follow unit SOPs regarding contact with the media.
DO continue to follow all Force Protection rules.
DON’T appear to favor any Iraqi parties or candidates (remain neutral).
DON’T appear to dislike any Iraqi candidate or party.
DON’T enter into “political” debates about elections.
DON’T gather near registration or polling centers UNLESS directed to do so by your chain of command.
DON’T interfere with Iraqi political gatherings.
DON’T interfere with media coverage of Iraqi elections.
Source: Department of Defense