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Iraqi Army soldiers unload truckloads of referendum ballots and other voting materials on the Iraqi side of FOB Normandy Thursday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday's vote.
Iraqi Army soldiers unload truckloads of referendum ballots and other voting materials on the Iraqi side of FOB Normandy Thursday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday's vote. (Andrew Tilghman / S&S)
Iraqi Army soldiers unload truckloads of referendum ballots and other voting materials on the Iraqi side of FOB Normandy Thursday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday's vote.
Iraqi Army soldiers unload truckloads of referendum ballots and other voting materials on the Iraqi side of FOB Normandy Thursday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday's vote. (Andrew Tilghman / S&S)
Ballots are unloaded as Saturday's vote draws near.
Ballots are unloaded as Saturday's vote draws near. (Andrew Tilghman / S&S)

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq — Seated in his command center, a yellow-walled room with slow-moving ceiling fans and antiquated computer terminals, Col. Thea Abid Ismael Al-Tamimi says he believes Saturday’s constitutional referendum will mark a turning point for his largely rural eastern province.

“We will have some violence, but not like before,” the 45-year-old battalion commander said. “It will be 90 percent good. And after the elections, security will be better. The people of Iraq are opening their mind.”

The U.S. soldiers who have been training their Iraqi counterparts here say they will step aside and leave Saturday’s election — and the heavy security around the polls — to the Iraqi police and army.

“Remember,” Lt. Col. Roger L. Cloutier, commander of Task Force 1-30, told his commanders at a weekly meeting Wednesday, “the Iraqis have got this one. We do not move to the sound of a gun.”

“The only way we move is if the JCC calls,” Cloutier said, referring to the Joint Coordination Center, the Iraqi operations hub.

Both U.S. and Iraqi forces view this as a critical test for the fledgling home-grown troops and their ability to operate independently. Many of the roughly 700 U.S. soldiers from Task Force 1-30 here at Forward Operating Base Normandy expect to leave the area later this year and turn over the base and its primary security duties to a battalion of 1,000 Iraqi soldiers.

The nearby city of Muqdadiyah and its surrounding population of more than 200,000 near the Iranian border reflect the demographics of the entire country, with a 60 percent majority of Shiite Arabs living alongside Sunnis and Kurds.

The predominantly agricultural area of about 386 square miles is overseen by Task Force 1-30, which includes many troops from the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment based at Fort Benning, Ga.

In the run-up to the election, U.S. soldiers here have seen an increase in violence, which included their first fatality in more than six months. Staff Sgt. Matthew Kimmell, 30, of Paxton, Ind., was killed early Tuesday morning when a roadside bomb destroyed his Humvee.

Kimmell was on a Special Forces mission; four other soldiers were injured.

Earlier this year, soldiers found between 20 and 25 roadside bombs a month. Since September, however, that has risen to between 30 and 35 in a month, said Capt. Alex Marrone, an intelligence officer. About half of those are found and disarmed before they explode.

In recent weeks, the bombs appear to have grown more dangerous, using a design that makes them more difficult to find before they explode, Marrone said.

Although U.S. troops plan to keep their distance from the region’s 63 polling sites, they have been integrally involved in setting up and securing the area.

U.S. and Iraqi forces — roughly 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 local police — have conducted several joint rehearsals.

This week, U.S. troops placed large concrete barriers around polling sites to prevent potential bomb attacks. They are helping Iraqis clear the roads to safely transport ballots to and from the polling sites. They will monitor security at the polling sites up until Saturday morning.

A regionwide vehicle ban will be imposed to lower the risk of car bombs. Iraqi poll workers will have metal-detection wands and each voter will be patted down and searched before entering.

On Saturday, teams of soldiers will be positioned throughout the city and poised to react immediately to any incidents the Iraqis may be unable to handle alone. U.S. officers will join Iraqi leaders at the Joint Command Center in Muqdadiyah.

U.S. soldiers will be prepared to offer that help on a moment’s notice, but many soldiers say that request will be unlikely and expressed confidence in the Iraqi forces.

“I think they are more than prepared — in our region — to handle this task. A year ago, we couldn’t even fathom to be where we are today,” said 1st Lt. Virgil Dwyer, a liaison officer with the Iraqi police.

About $14 million has been spent during the past year to upgrade local water facilities, build schools, improve trash collection and other infrastructure services, soldiers say. But helping Saturday’s elections unfold smoothly will be the most critical mission yet, Cloutier, the U.S. commander, said.

“This is the big event for our time period here,” he said. “This is the most important thing that we will do.”

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