A speaker purporting to be Iraq’s most feared terror leader declared a “fierce war” on democracy and said in an audiotape posted Sunday on the Web that the Americans were using next weekend’s Iraqi elections to install the Shiites in power.
“We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,” said the speaker, who identified himself as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq. “Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it.”
The speaker said candidates running in the Jan. 30 elections are “demi-idols” and those who vote for them “are infidels.” U.S. and Iraqi officials fear insurgent attacks and have announced massive security measures to protect voters.
“You have to be careful of the enemy’s plan to implement so-called democracy in your country,” he added. He said the Americans have engineered the election “to make Shiites dominate the regime in Iraq. Four million Shiites were brought from Iran to take part in the elections to achieve their aim of winning” most of the positions.
The authenticity of the tape could not be determined but the voice appeared to be that of al-Zarqawi. It was the second voice tape posted on Islamic Web sites this week purporting to be al-Zarqawi, responsible for numerous car-bombings and beheadings foreign and Iraqi hostages over the past months.
Iraqis are scheduled to elect a 275-member National Assembly and provincial councils in the 18 Iraqi provinces. The new assembly will draft a permanent constitution to establish a system of power among Iraq’s disparate religious and ethnic groups.
Sunni Arab insurgents have been launching attacks to try to subvert the election, fearing the loss of power to the Shiite majority. Many Sunni Arabs are expected to stay away from the polls. Shiite Muslims, who are the majority of Iraq’s 26 million people, are expected to turn out in large numbers and win most of the assembly seats.
Iraqi and U.S. forces are planning elaborate tactics to protect polling stations from suicide car bombers expected to launch a wave of attacks during the elections.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, head of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division based in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad, said the Americans planned to stay clear of polling centers during the vote, leaving visible security to Iraqi forces. But U.S. forces would be on hand to back up the Iraqis if necessary.
Even the locations of many polling stations are being kept secret until the last minute, in the hope of making it harder for bombers to plan their attacks.
Iraqi authorities announced on Saturday measures including curfews, bans on travel between provinces, on civilians carrying weapons and on most cars from using the streets on election day.
Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said that the Baghdad International Airport will be closed Jan. 29 and 30 and said other security measures would include a nighttime curfew for many parts of the country between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. for three days surrounding the vote.
"All of our security forces have been put on alert to face any terrorist attacks targeting these elections," al-Naqib said Saturday.
The plan for election day envisages an inner ring of Iraqi police officers at polling stations, an outer ring of Iraqi troops, and American rapid-reaction forces which can be deployed when necessary.
Exile voter registration extended
Meantime, the registration deadline for Iraqis voting abroad was extended to Tuesday amid low turnout in some of the 14 countries where voter registration centers were established.
“We are extending our operation in an effort to provide Iraqi voters with as much access to our centers as possible,” Peter Erben, head of the Out of Country Program at the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Registration had been set to close on Sunday but the IOM said it would remain open until Tuesday at the 74 registration centers signing up voters, many of whom fled into exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
The IOM has also eased registration rules by accepting an Iraqi passport instead of at least two documents to prove their identity and extended operating hours at polling centers in several countries.
Amman-based Western diplomatic sources said the extension was aimed at reversing low turnout in some countries, including Jordan where only around 5,000 of at least 150,000 eligible voters had registered.
IOM officials said up to Thursday, the fourth day of registration, about 93,000 of the estimated 1 million eligible voters overall had registered.
The Jan. 30 elections will pick a 275 member parliament which will in turn select a cabinet and oversee the drafting of a permanent constitution.
Registration began on Monday in 14 countries -- Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Countries with the largest numbers of Iraqis are Syria with an estimated 250,000 Iraqi voters, the United States with at least 200,000 and Britain with 150,000.
Voters can cast ballots at the same centers where they registered to vote from Jan. 28 through 30.