Iraqi Security Forces key to a peaceful historical election day
February 10, 2009
MOSUL, Iraq- I remember the first time I heard the call to prayer in the morning. I was living in Jerusalem, and just as if a symphony director had raised his baton and signaled the downbeat to his musicians, voices rang out of the various Mosques inside the "Old City" calling its citizens to pray. Though we are in the North of Iraq, the experience never changes. Ominous voices echo across an ancient landscape signaling the beginning of a new day.
As often as new days come, today was certainly special. The citizens of Iraq would set out to polling sites across the country and cast their vote for the candidate they thought would best represent them in the Provincial Governments. The story here has been widely reported, noting that cultural divides, mostly between Kurds and Sunnis, but also including the Yazidis, Shabaks, Assyrians and the Christians, could once again fragment the Province and re-open the possibility for violence.
Whatever the outcome in the coming weeks, today the almost 5 million people of Ninewah Province will leave their homes after a 48 hour curfew, walk to their closest polling site, subject themselves to a pat-down search, leave their cell phone and cigarettes with a guard, wait in line, and finally cast a vote for a representative they hope will best represent their interests in the Provincial Government.
For the Personal Security Detachment team of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, under the leadership of the brigade command sergeant major, Cmd. Sgt. Maj. James Pippin, today was particularly unsettling. The expectations were such that the day would either be very calm, or violence would again pour out into the streets. For his morning brief, Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Pippin reminded us that "this was the most defining day of the entire deployment," and we were here to support the local Iraqi Security Forces and their mission.
So we set out on a four vehicle convoy to tour Mosul and its various polling sites. We were to begin on the East side of Mosul, covering as much ground as we could. The afternoon would take us to West Mosul. Leaving FOB Marez it was immediately clear that the Iraqi Army and the police had the city well secured. The typically crowded streets of Mosul were now completely empty, save the emergency vehicles and Coalition convoys snaking through the various neighborhoods. Checkpoints were maintained and guards were posted on virtually every street corner.
Our first stop took us to a primary school transformed into a voting center. Talking with police, I learned that many of the men of the police force were not native to Mosul. Pulled in from various parts of the country these officers stood guard over just one of the over 700 polling sites in the Province. Still early in the morning, the electorate of Mosul were mostly still in their homes, eating breakfast and likely waiting for news on the status of security to come in through one of the various satellite TV stations operating in Mosul.
Continuing through the city we drove to another popular polling site in the Al-Sukar neighborhood. There Brigadier General Bah'a was busy coordinating his men, ensuring his plans were properly executed. Excitedly he walked from man to man, giving out orders as he went down the line. In the background, a growing number of voters were being searched and directed to the appropriate line in front of a converted community center. The General, eager to give a tour of his district, took us on a walk through the neighborhood to see the next site he would visit. Leaving our trucks and a security element behind, the large group began walking through the winding roads of West Mosul to the Al-Jamiyaa district, adjacent to the prestigious Mosul University.
I had failed to notice earlier that brightly colored civilian tents were being used to search women. Though a seemingly benign detail, there had been much discussion as to how forces would search women voters. Hundreds of women had been hired by the Provincial Government to search women, and just as planned, every polling site had a discreet location where women could go for the obligatory search.
Noticing a group of old men walking down the street, General Bah'a flagged down a passing SUV and ordered the driver to escort the men to their polling site. Thankful for the assistance, 8 men climbed into the truck, one of them even climbing in the trunk area, and set out to vote. Proud of his work, the General mentioned that various government vehicles were driving around the city, shuttling people back and forth to polling sites. It was now eleven A.M. and lines at the polling sites were long, snaking out the door onto the streets where white and blue tape would consolidate voters in an orderly line. People now out of their houses, some for the first time in a day, were enjoying the mid-afternoon sun and playing soccer in the streets. And still there was none of the violence so many had expected.
The afternoon took us to West Mosul, over the Tigris River, and through yet another barrage of Iraqi Army checkpoints. Much as in the East, security in this part of the city was very visible with guards spread across the neighborhoods at every street corner. Lines had dwindled, and the day transformed into a kind of holiday with people drinking tea, playing cards or just gathering outside their homes. With the vehicle ban still in effect, every street turned into a makeshift soccer field with rocks and chairs being used as goals. Now in the late afternoon, reports were coming back that there were no attacks today. Not only in Mosul, where over 2 million people live, but across Ninewah Province, polls were almost closed and there had been almost nothing in the way of violence to report.
Ballots were busy being boxed up and shipped to an undisclosed location, and the members of the Personal Security Detachment were returning home from the day's mission. Today Coalition Forces were just observers, watching over the security plans of the Province. The Iraqi Army and the police had successfully executed the first elections since 2005, and come the end of the day there would be no significant violence reported across the entire country. In the neighborhoods of Mosul, people seemed joyful on the streets, happy to raise their ink-stained finger to the camera. Ever present, but decidedly unengaged, we moved through the streets as Iraqi forces took the lead in the implementation of security plans. The people of Iraq now relied on their own people to keep them safe, and by the end of the day it was clear they had done their job well.