Vote holds little lure in Sunni heartland

YOUSSIFIYAH, Iraq - There were few election posters or banners Friday but plenty of graffiti promising death to voters in this heavily Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad, where nostalgia for Saddam Hussein endures and hostility toward the United States is widespread.

Two days before the first free balloting in Iraq in half a century, insurgents killed five American soldiers in Baghdad and blasted more polling stations across the country, sending a message that if Iraqis suffer deaths and injuries on election day, "you have only yourselves to blame."

An American OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter crashed Friday night in southwestern Baghdad, U.S. officials said. There was no indication of hostile fire and no word on the fate of the crew, the officials said.

Insurgents have accelerated attacks in hopes of discouraging Iraqis from voting in Sunday's election, the first since Saddam's downfall in April 2003. Voters will choose a 275-member National Assembly and governing councils in the 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish-ruled area will choose a new regional parliament.

About 300,000 Iraqi, American and other multinational troops and police will provide security for the voting at 5,300 polling centers.

A 7 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew began Friday and will stay in effect through Monday, and the government said it will close Baghdad International Airport and seal the nation's borders during the election period. Medical teams will be on alert and nationwide restrictions on traffic will be imposed from Saturday to Monday to try to deter car bombs.

Expatriate Iraqis began casting ballots amid tight security in early voting in 14 countries from Australia to Sweden to the United States.

Majority Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population, are expected to turn out in large numbers Sunday, as are the Kurds. Iraqis will choose from among 111 lists of candidates for the National Assembly, rather than voting for individuals, and the ticket endorsed by the Shiite clerical hierarchy is expected to fare best.

Here and elsewhere in Sunni strongholds, however, insurgents do not have to do much to persuade people to boycott the election. Many Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, believe Sunday's balloting will be tainted by the American occupation and Iranian meddling.

Many plan to stay home, threatening the legitimacy of the vote.

U.S. officials say security concerns - rather than political convictions - will largely determine who comes out to vote.

In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte insisted some Sunni Arabs will turn out to vote.

"Sunnis don't only live in some of these beleaguered provinces, they live here in Baghdad, they live in other parts of the country," Negroponte said on CBS' "The Early Show." "I think you're going to see participation across the board."

At the United Nations in New York, a spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "everything has been set in place for a valid election process."

"We're in the middle of a process that will eventually, we hope, produce a democratic system of government, coming out of an autocratic system under Saddam Hussein," spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

A Western election adviser in Baghdad said Sunni turnout could be as high as 50 percent if election day violence is low and if the boycott call is not heeded. But it could also be as low as 15 percent, the adviser said on condition of anonymity.

"We applaud the courage of ordinary Iraqis for their refusal to surrender their future to these killers," President Bush said in Washington.

To discourage turnout, Sunni-led insurgents have stepped up attacks against polling centers, candidates and electoral workers across Iraq. In response, U.S. and Iraqi forces have accelerated sweeps to detain suspected insurgents. Residents say dozens of men have been rounded up in recent days.


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