MOSUL, Iraq, Jan. 28 -- The U.S. military moved Iraqi security forces and voting materials to polling sites throughout Iraq, ramping up preparations for Sunday's parliamentary elections in the face of insurgent violence that left five American soldiers and 10 Iraqis dead on Friday.
The round-the-clock activity amounted to a nationwide logistical offensive, with U.S. troops enforcing "no roll" bans on vehicular traffic, helping to seal national and provincial borders, and providing concrete barriers, coiled razor wire and guidance on security at polling sites.
A car burns after exploding in front of a school in southern Baghdad that was scheduled to be used as a polling place. Hours earlier in the same area, a car bomb detonated next to a police station, killing four Iraqi civilians.
(Ali Jasim -- Reuters)
The massive effort, dubbed Operation Founding Fathers, has not resolved widespread uncertainty about the elections, and in some ways has intensified it. In Baghdad, two roadside bombs killed four American soldiers, and small-arms fire killed another. The capital grew deserted under a blanket of security. U.S. tanks appeared in the streets, and Apache attack helicopters and combat jets flew overhead in a pre-election show of force.
In the northern city of Mosul, insurgents spread graffiti -- some of it on walls at polling sites -- threatening to behead voters, and they sprayed gunfire at Iraqi security forces protecting polling stations. At one site, Arab and Kurdish security forces who were supposed to be working together were not talking.
In Salah ad Din province, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, officials were skeptical that elections could be held in some major cities, including Samarra, where in October the U.S. military staged an offensive that commanders said was designed to lay the groundwork for a peaceful vote. An Iraqi election official, Khalaf Muhammed Salih, said he doubted elections would be held at all in Samarra or Baiji, adding, "In fact, I think there will be clashes."
Iraqi government officials expressed optimism that the elections would be completed safely and that large numbers of people would vote.
"The election process will be safe," said Qasim Dawood, Iraq's minister of state for national security. "The Iraqis challenge the terrorists by their participation in the elections. The security plan will guarantee safe elections for the Iraqis."
The Iraqi government announced the arrests Friday of two men alleged to be high-ranking associates of Abu Musab Zarqawi, al Qaeda's point man in Iraq, who has vowed large-scale violence to interrupt the elections. One of the men, Salah Sulaiman Diaich Luhaibi, was Zarqawi's operations chief in Baghdad, Dawood alleged, and had met with Zarqawi more than 40 times in the past three months.
The Iraqi government has announced a string of arrests of reputed Zarqawi associates as election day has drawn near.
The U.S. military is engaged in an enormous effort to stage the elections while, at the same time, going to great lengths to play down the American influence.
On Sunday, after providing nearly all the logistical support to set up and secure the polling sites, U.S. troops will meld into the background, allowing Iraqi security forces to protect voters and Iraqi officials to conduct the balloting, U.S. officers said.
American military units will provide quick-reaction forces in case of an attack, the officers said.
The U.S. campaign began a week ago when thousands of soldiers began to distribute literature encouraging Iraqis to vote. The materials described the election as a singular opportunity for Iraqis to stand up to the terrorists. One poster distributed in Mosul depicted a destroyed building and read: "The terrorists did this to the people of Mosul. They will continue to destroy unless you say, 'Enough is Enough.' "
The campaign has been countered by the insurgents, who in their own literature characterized the elections as a violation of Islam because they would subordinate the will of God to the will of the people.