(This story will run in Sunday’s News Tribune)
American troops should be out of sight from polling places today as Iraqis elect a parliament for the second time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers are working behind the scenes throughout the country.
From Baghdad to Basra to Diyala, many of the 12,000 troops from Lewis-McChord have trained Iraqi soldiers to secure today’s polling. They will also provide support and remain on call to intervene in any attacks.
For many troops, the vast majority of whom arrived in Iraq last year, today’s election is the climactic event of their 12-month deployment.
And for ordinary Iraqis, the election represents a pivotal moment in the nation’s post-invasion history. Much remained unknown as the country went to the polls: Would there be violence? Would the Sunnis, who largely boycotted the 2005 election, vote en masse? Would Nouri al-Maliki remain the prime minister? And if not, how will his successor view the presence of American troops?
“If they are secure, legit, credible elections, and the people come out and vote – and there’s every indication right now they’re going to vote across all sectors of society – and then that government is seated, that’s a huge step forward for Iraq,” Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the I Corps chief of staff, said in an interview in February.
I Corps and its roughly 1,000 soldiers are in the midst of returning home to Lewis-McChord, although the headquarters is still officially in charge of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq for the election.
The Americans will provide assistance to Iraqi security forces in areas of expertise where the latter is lacking, such as aerial reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, close-air support, explosive ordnance disposal and medical evacuation.
U.S. troops are positioned throughout the country, far enough from polling sites so Iraqi civilians won’t notice but close enough to respond to an attack.
Such an intervention, Lewis-McChord officials stress, can only happen at the request of the Iraqi military.
“We’re not to be seen, but we’re not to be on bases either,” said Lt. Col. Darron Wright, deputy commander of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – a Stryker brigade deployed to western Baghdad.
Col. Steven Bullimore, commander of 17th Fires Brigade in southern Iraq, put it this way: “Be ready, stand by and stay out of the way.”
Lots of work
Much of the Americans’ election preparation involved training Iraqi police and soldiers who will staff the polling sites.
Troops from 4th Brigade taught their Iraqi counterparts methods of crowd control, running traffic checkpoints, search techniques and how to respond to mass casualties. They’ve also held large rehearsal exercises and have stocked sites across the province with medical supplies.
The U.S. military also provided substantial material support to the Iraqis. The 4th Brigade alone provided 1,500 pieces of concrete barrier, concertina wire, metal detectors and mirrors to look at the underbellies of cars during inspections. It also donated cranes and other heavy equipment.
Its sister Stryker brigade from Lewis-McChord, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is providing similar assistance in Diyala province. And the troops from Lewis-McChord’s 17th Fires Brigade are working alongside the 14th Iraqi Army Division in the southeastern city of Basra.
The 1,000-person 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade is serving throughout the country, collecting and analyzing intelligence for the election. And I Corps set smooth elections as one of its top priorities during its first official wartime deployment since the Korean War.
“In the time that the I Corps headquarters has been here,” Bayer said, “this is the decisive event.”
A string of attacks across the country last week undoubtedly was linked to the looming election.
Vigilance was high on Thursday, when soldiers, policemen and other Iraqis who won’t be able to vote today went to the polls for a special round of voting.
The location of one of the attacks that day – outside a bus carrying Iraqi soldiers in the Mansour area of Baghdad – is significant, Wright said.
“There were no attacks against a polling site itself,” he said. “They may have tried, but they were unsuccessful. It shows how well-orchestrated the Iraqi security plan is going around Baghdad.”
The majority of attacks in the weeks leading to the election have been assassinations against politicians and government employees, Wright said, and most in the Baghdad area can be linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group.
Iranian-backed Shiite militias that the military has dubbed “special groups” also are responsible for some attacks in and around Baghdad, Wright added.
The potential for violence could rise after the election, when politicians try to form a coalition and select ministers. Many military officials indicated that this period could be fraught with more hostility than election day itself.
“Once they get seated, they’ll be working in the background to form their coalition, find out who the next prime minister is, who the next president is,” said 1st Sgt. Patrick McDonald, a reservist from Olympia who recently served as a liaison between the U.S. military and the Independent High Electoral Commission.
“They took a while last time because it was so new to them. And I don’t want to say that it’ll wind down into pandemonium,” McDonald said, “but the reality is that it won’t be the nice, easy process we see in our two-party system.”
Wright, the 4th Brigade deputy commander, agreed: “This isn’t a single day, and then we can all high-five and go home.”