Reporter's Notebook: Iraq's Freedom Land

Saturday, January 29, 2005

MOSUL, Iraq —
U.S. troops' first priority is to keep voters safe, but not at the risk of making voters feel uncomfortable coming to the polling site.

Captain Ken Burgess is worried. As commander of Charlie Company of the Second Battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment he has three polling sites in his jurisdiction in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Militants on Thursday detonated an explosive device outside a school where they expected Iraqis to vote. The location was a decoy, set up by Captain Burgess to throw terrorists off track.

Although the deception worked, the bad guys have more explosives and will no doubt try again. Captain Burgess wants to make sure they don’t succeed. Along with his Iraqi counterparts, he tours all polling sites in his region. He pays meticulous attention to every detail. His first priority is to keep voters safe.

But Captain Burgess has another concern. He told one of his young soldiers, “I want to make sure people are comfortable coming to the polling site.” Burgess doesn’t want Iraqis to feel as if they are “entering Fort Knox to cast a ballot.” His task will not be easy, especially considering that voters will be searched twice before they even see a ballot.

To make polling centers more inviting Burgess has ordered that that all Iraqi and U.S. military gear is kept out of sight from voters. Although U.S. troops are already under orders to let Iraqi troops handle voting center security on Election Day, Burgess is further stressing that his men keep a low profile unless there is a problem.

During the final hours leading up to the election, if troops under his command are spotted they might be seen with an M16 rifle in one hand and a mop in the other. Standing in the hallway of a dilapidated school being transformed into a polling center Burgess explained to an Iraqi Colonel, “we will work together to clean the school, so to the people it looks very presentable.” That means voting centers under his command are being well scrubbed. Windows and floors will shine. A small discretionary fund is being used to buy cleaning supplies.

And just to make sure anxious voters don’t lost their way; Burgess has troops placing arrow markings on the ground indicating the path to the voting booths. He says it will look something like an “amusement park.”

Iraqis might want to call it Freedom Land.

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David Lee Miller currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.