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Poll workers' courage could be key to election

An Iraqi election worker carries a ballot box after their arrival at a warehouse in Hilla, 75 miles south of Baghdad, on Friday.
An Iraqi election worker carries a ballot box after their arrival at a warehouse in Hilla, 75 miles south of Baghdad, on Friday.Anja Niedringhaus / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Security, turnout and the presence of workers to run the polling stations are the key variables to watch as Iraqis prepare to vote in Sunday's historic election, according to NBC's Campbell Brown.

What is the extent of security preparations ahead of the election?
U.S. military forces are on patrol and are focusing, at least in Baghdad, on the areas around the polling stations. They are doing door-to-door sweeps where they, based on intelligence, go into someone’s home and check for weapons, and, in general, scope it out to try to get a sense of the area.

When we have gone out on patrol with [the U.S. forces] they were also looking for locations around polling places where, for example, a sniper might be able to hide out and target people going in and out. They are keeping a very visible presence, particularly in those areas. The polling places are also heavily guarded by Iraqi police.

Beyond that, coalition forces have been running operations over the last few weeks throughout the country. They have been acting on intelligence to specifically try to keep insurgents on edge to disrupt whatever they may be planning.

Part of it is just a presence, to be as visible with that kind of show of force as possible. To try to lend some sense of security to the Iraqis and to give them the confidence, frankly, for them to be willing to take the chance to actually go to the polls.

What are the types of potential threats that voters fear?
In the more dangerous areas — the areas that we hear about — it’s the obvious. Here in Baghdad, as well as in Mosul, Ramadi and Tikrit, there are constant bombings. Polling place in particular have been a target, but also election workers. Election workers have been killed, have been kidnapped, their families threatened. Anyone directly associated with the election is obviously a target.

But one of the things that is of a major concern is some of the areas where there has been more stability, particularly in the south, and in the north, in the Kurdish areas.

It's there that both the Iraqis and the military may take areas for granted and assume that there is a comfort level and that people will go out and vote.

But in fact, according to military officials, they believe that’s what insurgent leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi want, which is to trigger a civil war between the Shiite and Sunnis. They believe that Zarqawi may think he could make huge headway toward that goal by creating a spectacular event in one of those areas where it is not expected. That is one of the things that is really keeping the military on edge; that for all of the attention that Baghdad and Mosul and places like that are getting right now, that the more stable Shiite areas could end up being the target for something fairly dramatic.

How do regular Iraqis feel about the intense security?
The people that actually do go to the polls will be showing extraordinary courage. Almost everybody you talk to says that they are afraid. It’s obvious that there is nothing comfortable about this for any of them.

One of the lynchpins that we need to focus on here is the election workers themselves. There is no “Plan B” if those people don’t show up. They have to actually go to the polling places and be there throughout the day to run them and operate them. They are taking enormous risks.

While they are being trained right now, there is great concern that when push comes to shove — because their families are being targeted, because they are being targeted so intensely — that they will fail to show. If you have a polling place where the workers don’t show up and you do have people who turn out there, you could have a very dangerous situation on your hands. And then there’s no option other than to shut it down. And then what do you do with all those people who turned out?

From the people I’ve spoken to, the election workers are really going to be the ones who pull this off — by demonstrating their bravery by showing up and turning out that day.

Is there a sense of confusion over secret polling stations?
Initially yes, although that’s starting to lessen. They have been kept quiet, but word is getting out and an official announcement will shortly be made.

I actually got a chance to see a map of Baghdad and where all the polling stations are located. One of the other problems is that cars — all vehicles — are going to be banned from the streets of Baghdad on Election Day. That raises the question: Well, how then do you get there? They tried to strategically locate the polling stations so that there is basically one in every neighborhood and people can just walk. So that they can absolutely limit all vehicular traffic, because car bombings have been so prevalent recently.

But, there is some confusion; for the most part the polling stations are being set up at schools.

The communities, though, are pretty tight and there is a lot of communication within the neighborhoods about what’s happening. An official announcement will be made shortly, but they really didn’t have a choice — because polling stations have become such a target over the last few weeks — other than to keep things quiet until the last possible moment.

You’ve been out on patrol with U.S. troops. What is their feeling about the election?
In talking to the troops they voice a lot of frustration. One thing I noticed going out with them is that it’s not as though the entire country is in flames. There are areas of Baghdad, and certainly parts of the country in the north and the south, where there is some stability. Places where people are out walking the streets and there is a level of comfort there that you don’t see in the news reports because of the violence.

There are troops, for example, in Sadr City who are working on reconstruction projects that are beginning to show some signs of progress in those very poor neighborhoods. But, they don’t get a lot of attention for their efforts because there is so much focus on the violence, with good reason.

So, they are in a tough spot. They are doing the best they can in a very difficult circumstance. 

Are Iraqis aware that overseas expatriate voting has begun?
Yes, from news reports, they are aware of the ex-pat voting. But, Iraqi officials are disappointed in the number who registered overseas. It’s approximately 280,000, or slightly more than that, and they had hoped that number would be far greater.

That’s one of the things you really have to look at. Not just the ex-pat voting, but obviously the voter turnout in general. It’s going to be such a measure of success for this election. That’s the thing we have to watch for on Sunday.

If there are 14 million people who are registered to vote, basically, what the Iraqi government will tell you is that if half of those people turn out to vote; that will be great. Fifty percent would be something they’d be really pleased with, that's 7 million people. But, it may be far less than that. They have no sense, it’s so unpredictable.

The other thing to look out for is the level of Sunni participation. The sense here is that given the level of intimidation — if 25 percent of the Sunnis actually turned out to vote — that would be a success. If it’s five percent, that’s not a good sign. It obviously hinges on the level of violence and what we see tomorrow and Sunday.

So, in summary, what are the most important things to watch for on Sunday?
The election workers showing up and being a lynchpin for what happens. And the level of participation and the level of violence are essentially the other factors that will determine whether or not the election is a success.

Where do we go from here?
What’s crucial is, obviously, longer-term security. Most of the U.S. officials here will tell you that is entirely dependent on the training of Iraqi troops.

Starting in April they are going to be putting 20-man advisory teams with each Iraqi battalion — these will be regular Army and Marines. So far, they’ve been doing that on an ad hoc basis, but this is essential to getting them up to speed.

So again, as the military would say, until they are able to hand over the bulk of this effort to the Iraqi troops it will remain problematic.