Voting begins Monday in hospitals, military camps and even prisons across Iraq , launching the process to choose a new parliament that the United States hopes can help quell the terrorist insurgency so U.S. forces can begin heading home.
Iraq's government announced it will close its borders, extend the nighttime curfew and restrict domestic travel starting Tuesday — two days before the main election day — to prevent terrorists from disrupting the vote.
"We are very prepared for the elections, and we are highly determined," Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said. "We hope that everyone participates and that it will be a safe day. ... We are at a historic juncture."
Voters will be choosing their first fully constitutional parliament since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein. The 275-member assembly, which will serve for four years, will then choose a new government that U.S. officials hope can win the confidence of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority — the foundation of the terrorist insurgency.
In a statement Sunday, Iraq's election commission said it was investigating a fivefold increase in the number of new voters in Kirkuk "that is difficult to explain." Kurds want to incorporate the oil-rich northern city into their self-ruled region, an idea strongly rejected by the two other ethnic groups in the city, the Arabs and the Turkomen.
Although most of the 15 million eligible voters will cast ballots Thursday, soldiers, police, hospital patients and prisoners not yet convicted of crimes can vote Monday.
Officials said Saddam — who is jailed and facing trial for the deaths of more than 140 Shiites in 1982 — has the right to vote but it was not known whether he would.
Suspected terrorists held in U.S. or Iraqi detention but who have not been convicted of an offense would also be eligible, Iraqi officials said.
On Tuesday, the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi voters living outside the country can begin casting their ballots over a two-day period at polling centers in 15 countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia.
Voters must produce a passport, certificate of citizenship or military service papers and dip an index finger in indelible purple ink to prevent them from voting more than once.
With security so tenuous, campaigns have been waged primarily through media advertisements, colorful banners and placards on the streets, and press conferences before audiences packed with supporters.
Most attention has focused on Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the Jan. 30 election to protest the continued U.S. military presence.
With most Sunni Arabs staying home, Shiites and Kurds won more than 220 of the 275 parliamentary seats — a move that sharpened communal tensions and fueled the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
This time, more Sunni Arab candidates are in the race, and changes in the election law to allocate most seats by province instead of based on a party's nationwide total all but guaranteed a sizable Sunni bloc in the next assembly.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged all Iraqis to vote, telling reporters Sunday in Sulaimaniyah: "We need a government that brings Iraqis together."
Turnout in January was about 58 percent but less than 5 percent in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar, a hotbed of insurgency.
U.S. officials hope that a big Sunni turnout and a strong Sunni bloc in the new parliament will help curb the violence so the United States and its coalition partners can begin drawing down their forces in 2006.
An American soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the U.S. command said. That brought to at least 2,142 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
During an appearance Sunday on a cable news show, Khalilzad held out hope that the election would be a turning point, saying "conditions are moving in a direction that can allow a significant decrease in the size of the American forces starting next year."
Speaking via video link on Germany political talk show ARD, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Iraqis were determined to vote.
"The Iraqi people won't let themselves be frightened off by the threats of terrorists," Talabani said in comments dubbed into German.
Even with a big Sunni vote, Shiites are expected to win the biggest share of parliamentary seats. Shiites form an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people compared to 20 percent for the Sunni Arabs.
On Sunday, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a binding religious decree, or fatwa, instructing followers to vote for candidates "who can be trusted to protect their principles and safeguard their interests."
That appeared to be a veiled endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties that dominates the current government.
Al-Sistani also urged Shiites to avoid "splitting the vote and risking its waste" — an admonition apparently directed against former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite running on a ticket with several prominent Sunnis.
Some Sunni religious extremists, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have warned Iraqis against voting. But most terrorist groups have avoided threats of violence that helped keep Sunni turnout low in January.
The hard-line Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, which was at the forefront of the January boycott call, has said voting was an individual choice.
Nevertheless, thousands of Iraqi forces will be mustered to protect polling stations, with U.S. and other coalition troops ready to help in the event of a major attack.
Separately, Iraqi and British officials said Sunday they had no word on the fate of four Christian peace activists, more than a day after the expiration of a deadline set by kidnappers to kill them if all prisoners weren't released.