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REFERENDUM IN IRAQ

A Feeling of Security at the Polls

Police take charge near voting sites. Comparing the balloting with the election in January, one worker says, 'There is a big difference.'

October 16, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In the weeks before Iraq's January elections, Ghadeer Zaki Abdullah sneaked around the capital like a criminal on the run. A number of his colleagues were gunned down, including three executed on a main Baghdad street in broad daylight.

But this time, things have changed, and the election organizer says he has been able to come out and tell everyone who he is: one of the good guys.

"Before we used to hide what we were doing, even from our friends and relatives," said the lanky 42-year-old father of one. "We've now gotten rid of the fear."

Before the Jan. 30 polling, Iraq's first multiparty election in half a century, insurgents targeted election workers around the country and about a dozen were killed. Election commission officials loudly complained that not enough was being done to protect those trying to organize the vote.

But this time around, the streets have been much safer for election workers.

"They don't work underground," said Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. "They work over ground. We have no problems in this field. Everything is OK."

Abdullah has managed seven polling centers near his ethnically mixed neighborhood on Baghdad's lengthy Palestine Street, providing supplies and overseeing security for 42 voting booths. In an interview and ride-along during the Jan. 30 vote, Abdullah ranted about incompetent police officers who failed to erect barriers in time and election commission bosses who did not provide adequate supplies.

His requests for more cops, more security measures and more pens had gone largely unheeded.

In the run-up to this election, however, Abdullah said he and his deputy were able to transport supplies to the polling centers with the help of a police escort, who fired automatic weapons into the air to clear traffic.

"Now the police are cooperating with us," he said. "They even ask us what services they can offer."

Election officials say police were out in greater numbers at polling stations Saturday compared with Jan. 30. Abdullah said he watched with glee as police officers closed off all the streets leading to his polling places and placed snipers on rooftops. He went door-to-door with the officers to search homes near polling sites.

"I feel there is a big difference between now and last time," he said.

Most of the 150,000 election workers staffing 6,230 polling sites throughout the country were temporary employees paid about $200 for a day's work. But many said they were more motivated by duty than by pay.

"Our reward is stability and security in Iraq," said Alia Younis Ibrahim, 59, an election worker in Mosul huddled with three other women in a U.S. Stryker armored vehicle on her way to a polling site. "We want the constitution because it brings stability for our kids."

Increased security at the polls may have played a factor in the strong voter turnout Saturday, said Amar Salem Kadhem, who ran a polling site in Baghdad's Jaderia district.

"People are more comfortable, and they're feeling more secure and they're feeling safer," said Kadhem, who added that he would go back to his regular job as a dentist after the election.

Abdullah said that for him, the Jan. 30 election was the big turning point. When his neighbors began showing up at the polls, they realized he was working for the election commission. They hailed him as a hero, he said.

"Now I feel I'm doing something for my country, not for the Americans or some international organization," Abdullah said. "I feel deep down I'm serving my country. I don't have to be afraid of anybody accusing me of being a traitor. I'm certain of my work and what I'm doing."

Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Baghdad and Louise Roug in Mosul contributed to this report.

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