An election worker has been killed and another one kidnapped over the last two weeks, a senior Iraqi election official said Monday, in a worrying sign of the dangers facing election workers as the country's March 7 parliamentary election draws closer.
Hamdia al-Hussaini, a commissioner on the Independent High Electoral Commission, said the employees are believed to have been targeted because they worked for the election commission.
The nationwide election will decide who will lead the country for the next four years as U.S. forces, in Iraq since 2003, draw down, with combat forces leaving by the end of August and the rest by the end of 2011.
Election workers were targeted by insurgents ahead of three nationwide votes in 2005 — two general elections — in January and December — and a referendum on a new constitution in October.
‘It is very dangerous’
Those attacks were designed to disrupt the vote and intimidate Iraqis from taking part.
"Now, it is very dangerous to go out," al-Hussaini told The Associated Press in an interview at her office, located in the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister's office. "We can protect them only when they are in their offices."
She said numerous employees have also received death threats, and others have had family members kidnapped or killed. She gave no figures or specifics.
Al-Hussaini said the government has agreed to a commission request to provide safe housing for employees as the vote approaches. A complex inside the Green Zone has been set aside for that purpose, she said.
"Despite all the difficulties, our staff is continuing their work in order to make the process a success," she said.
Both Iraqi and U.S. officials have warned that violence may increase ahead of the ballot, but Iraq's election workers are particularly vulnerable to attacks at their homes where they often have little security.
Al-Hussaini said the commission has taken a number of steps to address complaints from past provincial and parliamentary elections. They are increasing the number of polling places so that people don't have as far to travel — an important factor since the government may impose a vehicle ban on election day as it had done in the past.
Special type of ink
The commission has also sent a delegation to China to supervise the manufacture of a special type of ink that won't wear off easily. Once people have voted, they dip a finger in ink as a way of preventing them from casting duplicate ballots, but there have been reports of people washing off the ink to vote multiple times.
The commission has not yet made a decision on the fate of 14 political parties and one political figure who were recommended to be banned from the election by a committee tasked with vetting the roughly 6,000 candidates. The recommendation was made on the grounds that they have had ties to Saddam Hussein's regime.
The list included the party of Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician who has been harshly critical of the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The move to bar al-Mutlaq has led to an outcry by the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, and raised fears that Sunnis may feel disenfranchised and boycott the vote. That's especially worrying since the Sunni boycott of the simultaneous parliamentary and provincial elections in January 2005 was followed by a dramatic surge in violence.
The election commission will have about 300,000 workers deployed across the nation on election day, staffing about 52,000 polling centers, al-Hussaini said.
In renewed violence, a bomb attached to a pickup truck in an Iraqi Shiite lawmaker's convoy wounded five people Monday in Baghdad, including three of his bodyguards, officials said.
A police official at the scene told the AP that the legislator, Izzat al-Shabander, was not in the convoy when it was hit. The other two people wounded were bystanders, he said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.