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Security Efforts Intensify Ahead of Iraq Polls

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're going to begin this hour with the war in Iraq, the situation on the ground and the intelligence that was used in the run-up to the invasion. In a few minutes we'll hear new information about bad intelligence that was used by the US. First, to Baghdad, where Iraqis are getting ready to vote for a new government. US and Iraqi army commanders are gearing up for a massive security operation on election day next Thursday. NPR's Jamie Tarabay traveled with the top US military commander in Iraq, and she sent this report.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

General George Casey is in a Black Hawk on his way to Camp Echo, the Polish base in Diwaniyah in south-central Iraq. It's one of several trips the US commander in Iraq will make across the country in the coming days to check on security preparations for the December 15 elections.

Unidentified Man #1: Hi. How you doing?

Unidentified Man #2: Nice to see you.

TARABAY: Once Casey arrives, Polish Major General Piotritro Wenski(ph) walks him through a display of some of the different weapons his trips have confiscated lately. Among them are some very old and very original models.

(Soundbite of banging noises)

General GEORGE CASEY (US Army): I can't believe this would even fire, and that's ...(unintelligible).

TARABAY: Then it's into a conference hall, where Iraqi governors and their police chiefs are waiting. A Polish officer begins the briefing by referring to security preparations for the last Iraqi vote, the October constitutional referendum. That day passed in relative quiet here.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man #3: Well, we won this battle, and we can be very proud of it.

TARABAY: Now the focus is on December 15th, election day.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man #3: Our goal in ...(unintelligible) security forces and the election organizers is to create a security environment in which the Iraqi people will ...(unintelligible).

TARABAY: Diwaniyah's governor, Halil Hamza(ph), says his relatively quiet city still needs help to keep it safe.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Governor HALIL HAMZA (Diwaniyah): (Through Translator) The fact that the officers and the military commanders talked about the security situation in the province of Diwaniyah has been good and much better than most provinces. That doesn't mean that there aren't areas where terrorists are harbored.

TARABAY: The Poles and the Iraqis expect insurgents to step up their attacks as election day approaches. They warn there could be assassinations of political candidates, and they expect that no matter how well-prepared everyone is, violence will occur.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man #4: (Through Translator) There are needs in this province and in other provinces that need to be provided to to make sure that the elections are conducted in a safe environment.

TARABAY: Major General Ahman Ali-Ferhud(ph) commands the 8th Iraqi Army Division. His troops will take over security in this region on election day. Coalition troops will back them up if there's an attack. Ferhud says the security measures are already in place.

Major General AHMAN ALI-FERHUD (Commander, 8th Iraqi Army Division): (Through Translator) We have already started our checkpoints throughout the provinces. We have patrols now on the main roads that connect the provinces in our area of responsibility. And other very, very important point--that in the very hot areas, in the areas where we suspect there are terrorists, we started operations, we're conducting operations, search, raids and arrests.

TARABAY: General Casey says the Iraqis are better-prepared for these elections than for previous votes. But he fully anticipates insurgent attempts to disrupt the voting.

Gen. CASEY: Yes, there will be some, but right now I can't really tell which way it's going to go. I mean, it could be relatively low. But I guess since I'm a bit of a pessimist, I expect that the terrorists and insurgents will pull out all the stops.

TARABAY: Most importantly, Casey says Iraqis mustn't expect the election to bring an immediate fix to the problems currently plaguing the country. `It's a major step forward,' says Casey, `but ultimately just one step in a long journey.' Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.