BAGHDAD -- Iraqi authorities announced sweeping security measures yesterday designed to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks during the national election scheduled for Jan. 30, including a three-day ban on car travel between major cities and wide cordons around thousands of polling places.
The plans are the latest sign that the violence racking the country presents obstacles at every step of the way in the vote, from educating voters to counting ballots.
The stakes are high in Iraq's first competitive election in decades, as voters choose a national legislature that will draft a new constitution, setting the country's course on issues from the role of Islam in government to the balance of power among the country's fractious ethnic groups. But because of security fears, Iraqis will not know the names of most candidates or where to go to vote until days, possibly even hours, before the election. More than 200 candidate slates are campaigning without naming most members, and the locations of polling stations will be handwritten onto preprinted election posters just before the vote.
Voters from such restive cities as Fallujah and Mosul, where voter registration was canceled last month because of safety concerns, will be allowed to register the day of the election and cast ballots at any polling station in their province, Iraq's provincial affairs minister, Wael Abdul-Latif, said yesterday. But with even stricter driving restrictions still under consideration, it is unclear whether they will be allowed to travel to safer areas.
To counter charges by Iraqis opposed to the US presence that the 150,000 US troops in the country will taint the election, Iraqi and US officials insist that the 130,000 Iraqi security forces will take the lead in protecting polling stations. But to reassure voters, they also emphasize that US troops will be close by to back up Iraqi forces, who have often fled in the face of insurgent attacks.
The 7,000 to 9,000 polling stations originally planned nationwide have been cut back to about 5,500 to make them easier to secure, a Western diplomat said yesterday on condition of anonymity. That means Iraqis will have to travel farther to vote in an election whose legitimacy depends in part on significant turnout.
Insurgent attacks, which have killed seven election workers, two candidates, and scores of security forces in the past month, have kept most campaigning off the streets, restricted mainly to television commercials and politicking from the pulpits of well-protected mosques.
The Western diplomat said that in southern areas dominated by Shi'ite Muslims, where candidates feel slightly safer but still nervous about public places, some candidates are using an unusual campaign tactic to reach out to voters -- attending funeral gatherings where they can meet many members of an extended family in a private home.
Security problems also have severely hampered voter education. Iraqis still have not received instructions on filling out the complicated ballots, and many do not understand that they are voting not only for a national assembly but also for provincial councils and, in the semiautonomous Kurdish north, for a Kurdish regional assembly.
Polls have suggested that 60 percent of Iraqis surveyed believe they are electing a president, while in fact they are electing a 275-member legislature. That body will choose a president and two vice presidents, who will then select a prime minister with the legislators' approval. US-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will have to vie for their support to keep his seat.
Television ads to explain the procedure to voters have just begun, but, the Western diplomat said, ''there's just not enough of them."
This confusion has drawn criticism from Iraqis across the political spectrum.
''You have to wonder how legitimate these elections are," said Hatem Mukhlis, an emergency room doctor who returned to Iraq from Binghamton, N.Y., to head a secular Sunni Muslim candidate slate called the Iraqi National Movement.
''I demand that the security officials stop this bloodshed because if it goes on, it will not leave anything safe or intact," an influential Shi'ite Muslim leader in Baghdad, Jalaluddin al-Saghir, told worshipers at his Baratha Mosque on Friday.
Iraqis are divided on the value of such an imperfect election in such an imperfect climate. Leaders of the Sunni Muslim minority say violence and low turnout in Sunni areas like Fallujah and Mosul would give their Shi'ite rivals a lopsided victory and drive the country toward ethnic conflict.
''The election is going to fail even if it takes place," Mukhlis said in an interview. ''It's only going to cause more bloodshed."
But Shi'ites, who make up at least 60 percent of the population, see the vote as a first step toward claiming what they see as their rightful power -- and say they are determined to go to the polls regardless of the threat.
''We will not surrender to the terrorists even if we are cut to pieces," Saghir said in his Friday sermon at the Baratha mosque, which was plastered with posters promoting the list of prominent Shi'ites that is expected to win the most seats. ''Even if that means that their bullets and explosions can reach us -- men, women and elderly people."
A recent State Department poll indicated that 89 percent of Shi'ites called themselves likely voters, compared with 40 percent of Sunnis, the diplomat said.
If Sunnis stay away from the polls, some Iraqi politicians favor handing them extra seats in the assembly to keep them invested in the system. But Western officials say that would violate the interim constitution that lays out the election process.
Since the United States invaded in March 2003, debate has swirled over whether to have elections as quickly as possible to produce a homegrown government, or to wait for less-violent conditions.
One year ago, Iraqi officials said elections could be held by spring 2004 by developing voter rolls from a database Hussein's government compiled to hand out food rations to all citizens. US officials had rejected the database as inaccurate and outdated. Now, with security worsening, the food-card system is being used after all.
Instead of conventional voter registration, Iraqis were asked to come to registration offices only to correct their family's data in the food database. Less than 2 million of an estimated 14 million eligible voters have showed up.
Last week, 6,000 election workers had been hired, out of 150,000 that are needed, according to a member of the country's electoral commission. The 6,000 are supposed to hire the rest locally. But in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, the entire staff of the election commission quit after receiving death threats.
''The killers try to kill some of us and then they tell us to leave the work," an election worker wrote in an e-mail to a reporter. ''And that is what happened."
Mosul's police force, once numbering 4,000, now has 1,200 officers after the force collapsed last month when it was attacked by insurgents. The shortage means police will be able to handle only security inside polling centers, leaving outside security to Iraqi national guard troops backed by US soldiers, said the commander of US forces in Mosul, Brigadier General Carter Ham.
''This is really where you miss a police force," Ham told reporters yesterday.
Voters will probably be frisked on the way into the polls, election officials said. There will be separate lines for men and women to be searched.
Polling stations will be set up in 14 countries for Iraqis living abroad, but not in Israel, home to many Iraqi Jews expelled in 1948. Although Iraq's election law says all exiles are eligible, an Iraqi electoral spokesman said recently that Israeli citizens cannot vote even in a third country, because Iraq does not recognize Israel.
Other parts of the law have not been enforced. Despite a ban on religious campaign symbols, posters for the main Shi'ite list of candidates display the face of the country's most respected cleric. Television stations are supposed to give equal time to candidates but are running long spots on Allawi and little on obscure rivals.
But some of Allawi's critics are not afraid to express their views. Yesterday on a busy Baghdad street, a young man walked up to an Allawi poster and smacked it with his shoe.