BAGHDAD, Iraq – Death threats have chased away four elections officials in Mosul (search), stalling preparations for the vote in the northern city. Insurgents have torched election materials and a militant group believed to operate in Mosul has warned Iraqis not to participate in the election.
Iraq's third-largest city is already getting a taste of what many across this country fear may happen to Iraq's democratic transformation: insurgents using force and intimidation to try to hinder nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
"Nothing has happened so far regarding (preparations) for the elections," said Deputy Gov. Khasro Gouran (search) in a telephone interview from Mosul. "The (electoral) commission is lagging so far behind in its work, unlike in other cities such as Najaf and Irbil," referring to Shiite and Kurdish areas where security is better.
"Former regime supporters ... are doing all that they can to stop the elections process," Gouran added.
Iraq's Electoral Commission on Sunday set national elections for Jan. 30, and a spokesman said ballots would be cast nationwide, including in areas now wracked by violence.
But Mosul's insurgents — believed to include loyalists of Saddam Hussein (search) and militant Islamic groups — have wasted no time in making clear that anything related to the vote could become a target.
Several grocery store owners who were supposed to distribute voter registration forms to Iraqis along with their monthly government food rations have been threatened, officials said.
One store owner, Mohammed Abdul Qader, said eight militants showed up at his store in eastern Mosul and told him that handing out registration forms could cost him his life.
"They asked me to give them all the sheets if I received any or else they would kill me. I was very scared," he said.
Even though Abdul Qader said he believed the elections are necessary for a better Iraq, he said he would refuse to help in the process for fear of the insurgents.
In Baghdad, electoral officials acknowledge that violence in Mosul has made it hard for them to conduct voter education campaigns there.
Some political parties also complain that poor security and a general atmosphere of intimidation in Mosul are preventing them from informing the public about the vote or recruiting candidates.
"The security situation has deteriorated a lot in Mosul. A lot of the election preparations have been frozen," said Nweya Youhana, an official of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which has a seat in the interim government. "We wanted to educate people by organizing seminars but because of the security situation we cannot hold any gatherings."
"I know nothing about the elections in Mosul," said Sedeeq al-Malah, a Sunni Arab resident. Like many other Sunni Arabs, he doesn't believe a vote held while U.S. troops are in the country would be credible anyway.
Youhana said his party approached possible candidates for the general and local elections, but many were too afraid to run.
"If the security situation doesn't improve, it will be hard to hold these elections in Mosul," he said.
Mosul recently saw an upsurge in violence where insurgents overpowered police then looted and burned some police stations. The attacks prompted the local government to call in security reinforcements and the Americans to launch operations to oust the militants.
The weak performance by the police, which officials say is infiltrated by insurgents, cast doubt on their ability to secure polling stations. Officials have said they were screening the force to find out why some failed to defend their stations.
Before the war, Mosul — a predominantly Sunni Arab city of more than 1 million people — was a stronghold for Saddam supporters and home to many members of his army. Since Saddam's ouster, militant Islamic groups, kept in check under Saddam, have gained clout in the city.
Ansar al-Sunnah Army, a feared Islamic militant group believed to be operating in Mosul, has threatened strikes against polling places in Iraq.
Youhana said the latest bout of violence could have been designed in part to hinder elections in the city.
Sunni Muslims, who form the core of the insurgency, fear that a vote would cement their loss of power in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, he argued.
There have been calls for boycotting elections from influential Sunni Muslims groups. Unlike the Shiites and the Kurds, the country's Sunni minority — which ruled Iraq for decades — lack the powerful religious clergy and the well-organized political parties that support the vote, further weakening their position.
Officials acknowledge that the security situation and the threats could deter some from participating.
"When the terrorists are in control, they fear them and obey them," said Gouran, the deputy governor. "The degree of participation in the elections depends on the government's ability to flex its muscles."
He said the government was making progress in fighting insurgents and was trying to provide security in polling stations and looking for ways to minimize the risk, like voting by mail.
Gouran said two representatives from the electoral commission left the city after receiving death threats. The same thing happened with the two who replaced them.
Some officials vow the elections will be held despite the dangers.
"No Iraqi province will be excluded" from the vote, said Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.
Ayar said the commission would replace the torched voter registration cards or simply post the names of eligible voters outside polling stations. If the threats undermined the vote's credibility in a certain polling station, then the results of that station would be canceled, he said.
"The Taliban threatened the Afghans with murder, but the Afghans voted," he said. "There will be elections in Mosul."
Many, especially those with party affiliations, say they will cast their ballots. Others think it's not worth the risk.
"I'm not going to endanger myself and receive the voter registration sheets," said food ration distributor Khalil Ibrahim al-Jubouri. "Will whoever wins the elections take my body out of the grave and bring me back to life?"