An Iraqi policeman stands guard outside a voter registration center in Mosul as US and Iraqi troops enter.
When Iraqi Army Brigadier General Noor Aldeen visited his old secondary school in northern Mosul this week, he had little time to reminisce about placing first in spelling and arithmetic. His former school in the neighborhood of Al Nomaniya is an election registration site for upcoming regional elections in October, making it a popular place for a terrorist attack in the coming weeks.
Almost all of the 57 registration sites in Iraq’s third-largest city are at primary and secondary schools — they are well-known locations to locals and Iraqi schools have summer break at the same time as in the US — but not all schools are well protected against attacks.
“Today, we’re looking at force protection,” said Aldeen, the commander of the 8th Brigade of the country’s Mosul-based 2nd Division during a tour of five schools. “There will be continuous controls at each site and quick reaction forces available, backed up by Coalition forces if trouble occurs. Because it’s my old school, I’m over-protective of it.”
Al Nomaniya is relatively easy to defend. The school is on a side street with a tightly enclosed courtyard. Another school visited during the trip had a huge open courtyard with multiple-story buildings on the other side, a perfect location for snipers, while a third school is located a main road, easy pickings for a suicide bomber driving a vehicle. A return visit the next day showed an increased show of force, with armored Humvees blocking the main entrances of some schools and gun emplacements on some roofs.
As the battle over Iraq continues between insurgent forces and Iraqi and US military, the upcoming election may represent one of the last opportunities for terrorists to undermine the strengthening central government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
The elections this fall are the first since 2005, when pictures of Iraqi women in conservative garb proudly waving their purple, ink-stained fingers gave the world hope that parliamentary government may possible in Iraq. Those hopes were dashed with the Feb. 2006 al Askaria mosque bombing in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The destruction of the mosque’s golden dome set off a wave of deadly sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia that killed thousands and has only recently eased.
The locations are not yet well-known and no one had yet registered at any of the five sites visited by the General’s entourage of 15 Iraqi and US soldiers. Local authorities around Iraq have just started to advertise the 30-day registration period, which ends Aug. 15, even as the national parliament in Baghdad still debates the final election date.
“We’re trying to make sure the registration records are straight and see if a person’s name is missed,” said Sufian al Haziz, an official with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq who is in charge of the Tahreer school location. “I expect the number of voters will be more than in past years.”
The numbers may be greater only if violence against civil authorities remains as low as it has for the past two months. Things have quieted down in Mosul since May, when the 2nd Division began its anti-insurgency campaign, called Lion’s Roar. The operation placed the entire city of 1.9 million under 72-hour lockdown as Iraqi Army and Coalition forces discovered enormous caches of weapons and explosives and captured some of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s key leaders. Up to 70 percent of insurgent explosives caches may have been discovered during the campaign and more than 1,000 insurgents captured.
The insurgents “will probably try to regain the initiative, but they won’t be able to get back on their feet again,” Aldeen said.
The career path of Aldeen tracks many leaders within the current Iraqi Army, which fought three wars, lost two and was disbanded once at the end of Saddam Hussein’s disastrous rule.
A top student at Al Nomaniya for three years in the 1970s, he entering military and became the youngest major in the Iraqi Army in 1990. A Kurd, he quit the Army in 1996 to join the Kurdish Peshmerga militia. In 2004 he filled the vacuum left by the collapsing Baathist regime with his Peshmerga division, occupying Mosul.
“People will wait until the last 10 days of the registration period,” Aldeen said. “They need to know that it is a secure location first.”
The number of attacks in parts of the city have fallen by two-thirds since May, while hardcore Al-Qaeda in Iraq members have fallen to between 400-500 members, allowing them to place less than one improvised explosive device (IED) a day, according to the US Army. Suicide-bomber wannabes crossing the border from Syria has also fallen to about 20 a month from 120 a month at its peak, leading the Times of London to write earlier this month that Lion’s Roar has turned out to be “one of the most spectacular victories of the war on terror.”
“The situation in Mosul has gotten better in the past few months,” said Major Adam Boyd, the intelligence officer for the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment based at Camp Marez in southern Mosul. “The targets right now are not Coalition forces; its Iraqi forces and civilians.”
The main question in October will be if Sunni Arabs unite enough to bring it political power in the Ninewa province, of which Mosul is the largest city. Unlike other parts of Iraq, the Northern provinces are demographically mixed, with populations of Sunni, Kurd, Shia and smaller groups including Turkoman and Christian Assyrians makes coalition governance more common.
The demographic breakdown of the province is more than 60 percent Sunni, yet Sunnis boycotted the last election in December 2005, leaving political power in the hands of the Kurdish minority. Currently Sunnis only have 2 of the 41 seats in the regional assembly. And it remains to be seen if, because a disproportionate amount of Sunnis will be registering to counteract their past boycotts, violence by Sunni insurgents will lessen.
Political violence remains. Two university professors were killed last month in a politically motivated crime. The Iraqi Army officer in charge of registering new voters was also killed last week, perhaps because he was not willing to falsify election registration documents.