In the bustling city of Mosul in northern Iraq, there are few hints of the historic election that is about to take place. There are no candidates on the stump making speeches. No supporters handing out leaflets. No rallies, rope lines or debates. Many voters, in fact, don't even know who is on the ballot. Instead, on the streets of the country's third largest city, there is heavy armor--Bradley fighting vehicles, Abrams tanks--and 10,000 weapons-toting U.S. troops, reinforced by almost as many Iraqi government soldiers. They conduct raids on suspected insurgent hideouts, patrol neighborhoods on foot and man checkpoints throughout the city. In Mosul and the surrounding area, U.S. forces are working toward the same simple purpose: to "kill or capture bad guys and keep them from influencing the elections," says Captain Kevin Beagle, the squadron plans officer for the Army's 2-14 Cavalry. "We've been ramping up, obviously, for the elections."
Throughout Iraq's restive Sunni heartland, the military is in a race to subdue the insurgents by Jan. 30, when the country is scheduled to hold its first free elections in nearly 50 years. In Mosul commanders say they have curbed the insurgents' movements in the city. But the rebels have responded with ever more sophisticated strikes, disabling U.S. military vehicles with roadside bombs and then opening fire on stopped convoys from several positions. Their attacks have killed nine U.S. soldiers and scores of Iraqi national guardsmen in the past week. "By no means is this a safe city," says Captain Jim Pangelinan, who commands the Alpha Company of the Army's Task Force 1-14. "The insurgents' tactics have been more complex than what they've used previously here or elsewhere in the country." Pangelinan and his men have precious little time left to convince the estimated 1.8 million Mosul residents that it will be safe to participate on Jan. 30. "If they feel there isn't decent security," says Major D.A. Sims, the operations officer responsible for Mosul, "they won't turn out in large numbers."
With each day of mayhem, that prediction seems more accurate. The Bush Administration and Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, have resisted calls from a cross section of Iraqi political, tribal and religious leaders to postpone the vote until violence subsides in the insurgent-infested swath of territory that cuts through the center and up into the northern parts of the country. Those are areas with heavy concentrations of Sunni Arabs, who make up only 20% of Iraq's population yet ruled Iraq during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. They know that in democracies the majority rules, and that in Iraq long-suppressed Shi'ite Muslims--who make up 60% of the population--are the majority. As distasteful as the prospect of Shi'ite dominance may be to some Sunnis, many would would prefer democracy to Saddam's tyranny. But with less than two weeks before the vote, U.S. officials admit that the insurgents have succeeded in discouraging Sunni participation by assassinating election workers, gunning down politicians and threatening with death anyone who shows up to vote.