Military, Sunni Triangle leaders far apart on holding elections as scheduled
January 8, 2005
BAGHDADI, Iraq — American military commanders in restive Al Anbar Province are warning local leaders that elections will be held on schedule at the end of January, regardless of the security situation or some politicians’ opposition to the process.
The region — commonly referred to as the Sunni Triangle, and the epicenter of insurgent attacks — is expected to be the most difficult in Iraq to secure in the run-up to the Jan. 30 election of a national assembly responsible for writing a new constitution.
On Wednesday, senior Marine Corps officials brought their message directly to the mayors of Hit and Baghdadi, cities northwest of Fallujah that could be a flash point of violence in coming weeks.
“I know there is some opposition and reluctance to participating in the election,” Lt. Col. Greg Stevens, commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, told the mayors. “Again, I urge you, without participation there will be no voice for the people of Al Anbar. It’s ultimately up to the people whether they choose to vote or not vote, but it is my responsibility to make sure they have that choice.”
For their part, the local officials firmly believe the vote cannot happen as scheduled.
“In reality, we can only conclude it is impossible to hold elections in this area. If we take a contrary position, we are deceiving ourselves,” said Nassan Anad, Baghdadi mayor.
The wide chasm was reflected in the meeting: The two mayors sat on one side of the Baghdadi mayor’s office, separated from the Marines by 15 feet of green Persian carpet. In the middle stood a translator, alternately explaining each side’s comments.
The first concern is security, Anad said. Each attack on election workers, each car bomb targeting Iraqi Police or National Guard, each kidnapping of a local citizen drives home that message, he said.
Additionally, said Hit Mayor Ali Hamdi, residents of Al Anbar will not vote because they have no local candidates on the ballot.
“There are four opinions of the election here: People will boycott the elections and urge others to do so; people will ignore the elections and not care; people will ask the elections be postponed; or people will threaten anyone who participates or cooperates in any way,” Hamdi said.
U.S. military officials bristle at those notions, especially in the last case.
“Those who are threatening people need to be identified and arrested,” Stevens said. “Or if they resist, they need to be killed.”
The prospect of bringing the elections to Al Anbar province has many hurdles, including how to register Iraqis to vote. Even before the U.S. assault on Fallujah, members of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq said security concerns were keeping them from the area.
Now, with some 100,000 Fallujah and Ramadi residents displaced during the fighting, registration will be even more difficult. To address that, officials said, citizens in Al Anbar will be allowed to register on the day of the vote and can cast their ballot at any polling station in the province, regardless of their hometown.
“The elections are going to occur, and it’s harsh to say, but they will occur whether the mayors or the city councils participate in them or not,” Stevens said. “I will continue with the process as long as there is one citizen who wants to vote.”
Many of those displaced residents have moved to cities such as Hit and Baghdadi, both of which lie on the Euphrates River. Over the past four months, U.S. military officials said, they have largely respected the local politicians’ requests to keep troops out of Hit.
But with a string of attacks — including the bombing of a new city administration complex built with U.S. reconstruction funds — the U.S. military’s “patience is at its end,” Stevens said.
Stevens closed the meeting with a blunt warning to the local officials. Attacks on reconstruction projects and U.S. forces in Hit need to end, he said, or those projects will end and a decidedly more military attitude will be taken.
“I will make it clearly understood to the people that it was the insurgents who caused that to stop. If the insurgents continue their activities, we will fight them in the streets of Hit,” Stevens told Hamdi.
“The blame will not be on the multinational forces. It will be on the Iraqis who stand idly by and do nothing for the security of Al Anbar,” Stevens told the officials. “These are difficult times. But nothing good can happen without some measure of difficulty.
“Everything is a choice, and with choices come consequences, good or bad. The attacks need to stop, or there will be severe consequences.”