Iraqi election workers targets for insurgents

By Michael Hastings
Monday, December 21, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Insurgents have begun targeting Iraqi election workers in an apparent attempt to derail the March parliamentary vote, Iraqi officials said, prompting electoral authorities to restrict the movement of their employees and shelter some at a hotel in the Green Zone.

An election worker was killed in front of his Baghdad home last week, and a worker and the wife and son of another were kidnapped in the past 10 days, according to Faraj al-Haidari, head of the Independent High Electoral Commission.

"It is not a coincidence to have three attacks against our employees," Haidari said. "Our situation is a tragedy. You can see the worry and mental anxiety on the faces of my employees."

Iraqi officials described the attacks as the latest attempt by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to destabilize the government ahead of the elections, scheduled for March 7. U.S. officials hope the elections, which were delayed by nearly two months as a result of political wrangling, will lead to a smooth transition of power and that they will be able to sharply accelerate the withdrawal of troops.

The targeted violence has forced the electoral commission to increase security measures for staff members, of which there are about 500 in Baghdad alone, including limiting their movement during the day and advising their families to relocate until after the elections.

The commission has requested that the Iraqi government allow it to house workers at Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace, formerly home to the U.S. Embassy but now vacant. Rooms for higher-ranking officials have been secured at the Rasheed Hotel, a well-protected building in the fortified Green Zone where many Iraqi parliament members and foreign visitors stay.

Haidari said he has discussed the security issue with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. "We have asked for more security guards," he said. "We are trying to give our employees better protection. We insist to continue our work."

The run-up to the election has been punctuated by bombings that have shaken the confidence of the Iraqi government and have killed more than 400.

Though it is unclear exactly who is responsible for the killing and kidnappings, Iraqi officials say they think al-Qaeda in Iraq and insurgent groups affiliated with the former Baath Party are behind the violence.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an extremist umbrella group, has asserted responsibility for the deadly bombings of government buildings in August, October and, most recently, Dec. 8.

The violence against election workers fits into the insurgents' larger strategy to undermine and destabilize the Iraqi government.

"The electoral process is an important target to the insurgents, because if they break it they will break all the political process in Iraq," Haidari said. "I think all the enemies of democracy in Iraq are behind the bombings, including al-Qaeda."

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