Iraq's government extended a state of emergency for an additional 30 days Thursday night ahead of a security lockdown for the first elections since the U.S.-led invasion. Unprecedented security controls will be imposed for the vote on Jan. 30, including drastic travel restrictions and nighttime curfews, in an effort to tackle a growing insurgent campaign of violence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi extended the state of emergency, which was imposed two months ago before the assault on Fallujah. The order gives him the power to close borders and airports and impose other tight controls, with broader powers of arrest and curfew. It covers the whole of Iraq except the more peaceful Kurdish regions in the north. Allawi said he had taken the decision "because of the continuous atrocities by terrorist gangs to prevent the forming of a widely elected, representative government in Iraq and because of their attempt to delay peaceful participation by all Iraqis."
Officials from the independent Election Commission said they had drawn up a long series of security proposals, which the government was still reviewing. But it is already clear that on the day of the vote, and probably for a number of days before, Iraqis will be allowed to drive only in their own residential districts. Travel from one side of town to another and from one province to another will be strictly prohibited. Journalists will have to apply for several different identity cards to travel freely and approach the polling booths.
Already, the U.S. military has suggested it will adopt a low-key approach on election day in order not to present obvious targets, leaving the Iraqi police and other security forces to protect queues at polling stations.
Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral officer at the Election Commission, said security was a priority: "We care about the security of the voters and there is a list of security procedures to be approved by the Ministers' Council." He said travel restrictions would be a key part of the security plan. "Each person should stay in his area, and if anyone wants to move, including journalists, they should go to our offices for authorization. Without authorization you cannot move," he said.
Many Sunni leaders fear the violence will deter their community from coming out to vote, leaving them underrepresented in an Iraqi government that, for the first time in hundreds of years, will be dominated by the Shiite majority. The measures are designed to thwart suicide car bombers, who in recent months have become the weapon of choice for insurgent groups. The number killed by insurgents has risen rapidly recently: About 100 Iraqis have been killed this week alone, along with several American troops and at least four other Westerners.
Hundreds of Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen have been killed during the occupation. Thursday, police in the northern city of Mosul found the bodies of 18 men who had been captured last month on their way to work at a U.S. base. Dozens more Iraqi security force members have been assassinated in a wave of violence that has engulfed Mosul in the weeks since the assault on the insurgent-held city of Fallujah last November.
The Mosul victims were young, some just 14, and had been dragged from two minibuses a month ago. All came from Kadhimiya, the Shiite neighborhood of northern Baghdad. They had been shot, with their hands left tied behind their backs. Thursday night the French Foreign Ministry said another journalist had gone missing in Iraq. It did not say whether Florence Aubenas, who had been in Iraq for less than a month, had been kidnapped.