BAGHDAD — The ballots are out. Security preparations are complete. Thousands of people have even cast their vote already. As Baghdad moves into its final few days before the election, capital residents are preparing for an election unlike those before it.

"This is quite a monumental event," said Brig. Gen. Will Grimsley, a deputy division commander in Multi-National Division-Baghdad. "This is the first election post-Saddam that they’ve done with them in the lead."

"Iraqi-led" has been the mantra of American troops in Baghdad during the lead-up to the Saturday election – even as leaders circulated among polling sites with their Iraqi counterparts to ensure security preparations were in order.

Still, the Iraqi efforts have been on a scale larger than anything they did previous elections.

Local forces secured election material and shepherded them to the proper places. Local election officials monitored the sites to ensure that everything was done legitimately. Many of these officials work many miles from their own neighborhoods and face the constant threat that insurgents might target them because of their jobs.

"They have a job here that they feel is important enough to make that commute or travel away from their family," said Col. Joseph Martin, the commander of 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

Many American units are stepping up patrols prior to the election. Soldiers with the 836th Engineering Company — a National Guard unit out of Kingsville, Texas — hit Baghdad’s streets just after sunrise for a 60-kilometer patrol to keep bombs off the roads during the election. The soldiers expect to be busy with such "route clearance missions" until the election is complete, said 1st Lt. Jubal Grubb, the platoon leader who led the mission.

"We’re saturating the city," he said.

On election day, U.S. soldiers will be manning the outermost ring of security around polling sites. Most other units will be restricted to their bases because of a movement ban. The American military will have units ready to assist with any emergency.

"We are a phone call or a radio call away to help," Martin said.

Baghdad had minimal violence in the lead-up to the elections, including when thousands of soldiers, police officers, hospital patients and prisoners took part in early voting Wednesday. If that relative peace continues, it will mark another step toward a normal, peacetime political process.

Katherine Carroll, a political science professor who studies Middle Eastern politics, noted that the Iraqi process is an especially competitive one. Candidates compete for spots in a party, parties compete to form coalitions and coalitions compete with one another and individual parties and candidates. The way this has happened so far bodes well for election day.

"We’ve already seen a lot of competition and no violence," said Carroll, who is also part of the 2/1 HBCT’s Human Terrain Team.

That competition could be impossibly stiff for all but the best known parties. Nearly 2,500 candidates in more than 100 political entities were vying just 57 seats in the Baghdad Provincial Council as of early January.

This competition can be seen in the masses of election posters displayed on seemingly every free wall in the capital. Yet the quantity of posters masks how little most candidates have done to educate voters about what exactly they stand for. A few have participated in rallies and debates, and one candidate even led a caravan through Baghdad’s streets Thursday in vans decorated with flowers and campaign signs. But most have limited their campaign efforts to the ubiquitous posters.

"They just plaster these posters and then leave," a pharmacy owner in Baghdad’s Karkh district complained the week before the election.

It’s perhaps easier to say what candidates don’t stand for: Sectarianism, religious extremism and control by outside parties like Iran and the United States. Years of vicious fighting have so angered the Iraqi people that most groups claim to oppose these ideas – or at least downplay them. Some parties even tried to reach across the sectarian divide to form coalitions, although the abbreviated campaign season meant those efforts were often unsuccessful.

If these views hold true when voters actually go to the polls, established groups stand to lose significant representation in Baghdad. Yet most political entities remain arranged along sectarian lines, and the sheer number of them could encourage voters to just pick the groups they already know.

The truth of the matter is that no one will really know until the results are tallied.

Voting in Iraq

How did Iraqis vote in 2005?

Parties and coalitions drew up lists of their candidates, who were running for the Iraqi National Assembly, ordered according to a hierarchy.

When Iraqis went to the voting booth, they voted for a particular list based on their individual preferences. Voters could not choose an individual candidate on the list.

Seats were allotted to each list according to the proportion of votes it received.

How will Iraqis vote now?

Iraq will be using a variation on the list system for Saturday’s election, which chooses provincial council members. Ballots will have two boxes. Voters must first choose a "political entity" (see below) in the same way that they once picked a list. However, they now have the option to pick a particular candidate on the list, although they don’t have to.

How do voters mark their preferences?

The Iraqi government assigned each political entity a three-digit number by lottery. Candidates within a political entity are numbered according to their order on the list. Ballots will not have the candidates’ names or numbers as they do in the United States, because that would make the ballot too big. Instead, voters will need to memorize the numbers or refer to documents at the polling station.

What are the types of political entities?

Individual: Candidates who are not running with any party or coalition.

Party: Similar to political parties in the United States, although Iraq has many more political parties.

Coalition: Groups of political parties that banded together.

How will Iraqi officials prevent fraud?

Ballots will be tamper-proof and cannot be copied. Each voter will be required to show their ID on the day of voting. Indelible ink that takes days to come off will be put on the voters’ finger to ensure he or she doesn’t vote more than once. The color of the ink is being kept a secret until the day of the election.

When will the results be in?

Official results may not come out until mid-February.

SOURCE: Katherine Carroll, political science professor and member of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division’s Human Terrain Team; Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq

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