By Sgt. Ben Hutto, 3-3 Public AffairsMarch 26, 2010
The night before the Iraqi national elections, Soldiers assigned to the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, were still going through their system checks. While they would not be in charge of security for the polling sites in the Najaf, Babil, Wasit, Diwaniyah and Karbala provinces, they were determined to be ready if a call for help came.
In the days prior to the election, the 3rd HBCT provided Iraqi Security Forces with materials such as concertina wire and concrete barriers to help secure polling sites, allowed Iraqi observers into their command center to observe what they are seeing through the brigade's unmanned aerial vehicles, and shared information about possible threats to voters.
Their duties weren't as intensive as in 2005, when the brigade helped provide security during the last national elections in 2005, but brigade leaders felt confident that their Iraqi partners had a firm grip on the security situation.
"We feel we are helping the ISF set the conditions for a successful Iraqi election," said Maj. Melvin Sanders, the 3rd HBCT's assistant operations officer. "We feel comfortable with them in the lead. We want to be far away from the polling sites. You will not see us handling any ballots. We will not be greeting voters at the polls. This is an Iraqi election. It is led and orchestrated by them and them alone."
Taking a hands-off approach can be tough for Soldiers who have served multiple combat tours and still feel drawn to actively assist a country they have spent years helping, but Sanders was adamant that it was the right move.
"This is, perhaps, the most historic election in the country's history based on the fact that the responsible drawdown of American forces that is coming right after it," he said. "The administration that is elected will work with our current administration for the next four years. It is important that it isn't viewed as anything but legitimate."
As the morning of the elections unfolded, Soldiers in the command center watched their computer monitors and the screens showing aerial views of the polling sites with focused eyes.
"I'm anxious to see the Iraqi Security Forces do a good job of securing the populace," said Capt. Trenton Freeman, a battle captain in the operations center. "I hope the voters get a chance to vote and stay safe. I've actually prayed for that a couple of times over the last few days."
As the day unfolded, voters steadily streamed into polling sites across the brigade's five provinces.
The first signs of trouble started happening at 10 a.m. Several indirect fire rounds missed polling sites in the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment's operational environment in Babil Province. In the next 45 minutes, several more rounds missed polling sites, and improvised explosive attacks proved ineffective.
"We expected this to happen," said Staff Sgt. Craig McWilliams, the assistant battle non-commissioned officer in the operations center. "The ISF haven't called us for help, though. They seem to have it under control."
As voters continued to go to the polls, 1st Lt. Ali Abrahim, the 8th Iraqi Army Division's representative in the 3rd HBCT's control center, was pleased with what he was seeing.
"What I'm seeing is very assuring," he said through a translator. "When people can do something and help change their government, it is a great thing. There will be very happy people in Iraq today."
While his unit, Iraqi National Police and local police patrolled and guarded the areas around voting centers, Abrahim viewed it all from above in the command center.
"I am the connection between the Iraqi Army and 3rd HBCT," he said. "Their images are very helpful. We do not have that capability, but it is good to be able to take what I'm seeing and give it to my unit."
As the day progressed, voters continued to stream into polling centers until they closed at 5 p.m.
Despite worries that more attacks would happen, the rest of the day was peaceful. It was a welcome end to a historic day.
The movement to a responsible drawdown sent the message that U.S. believed this election - and those in the future - would go forward without any major problems, said Sanders.
"As a Soldier, I'm proud to say that I was part of the process."