Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Curfew Makes Ghost Towns

Streets empty of people after dusk as security forces maintain high profile.
By Yaseen Madhloom

Security forces closed Iraq’s borders and Baghdad's international airport as the country braced for a wave of insurgent attacks aimed at derailing the country’s first democratic election in half a century.


Most cities throughout the country appeared deserted, as residents began observing a three-day curfew from dusk till dawn. A travel ban between provinces has stranded some potential voters as well as foreigners.


The unprecedented security crackdown is tied to the January 30 poll, in which voters will elect a 275-member transitional National Assembly to write a new constitution. They will also vote for provincial assemblies and a regional Kurdish assembly.


There is widespread fear that insurgents are planning what United States officials have called “spectacular attacks” on election day. Dozens of polling sites throughout the country already have been the target of attacks, sometimes only hours after their location was disclosed.


In Baghdad, police barricaded the streets leading to polling stations, as well as main thoroughfares in areas such as the upscale al-Karrada shopping district. Iraqi security forces manned checkpoints throughout the city.


While the curfew added to the daily difficulties faced by people in Baghdad, some voters said the security lockdown boosted their confidence. "I'll be going to the polling station now, as I know the curfew will make us safer," said a woman who gave her name as Um Sabah.


“The decision to have a curfew is a good one, which means the election process can go ahead safely,” said restaurant owner Muhammed Taha al-Rubai. “The upside is stronger than the downside."


In the southern city of Basra, governor Hassan Kathim al-Rashid said police and national guardsmen are deployed throughout his city, while Coalition forces are providing protection outside the city. He added that authorities have prepared extra polling sites that can be used in case of emergency.


“The situation in Basra is stable and it will remain so on election day,” he said.


Many residents have been complaining that the curfew is too strict. Shopkeeper Abu Amhed said he is losing business because of the restrictions. He said police show up in front of his shop at 7 pm and force him to lock up four hours earlier than usual.


The scene is similar in Hillah, centre of the Babil province which lies just south of Baghdad. Shops are shuttered and only the police and Iraqi National Guard dare to walk the streets.


Nawfil Khazar, a 30-year-old worker, said life in Hillah has been “paralysed” by the curfew. “We didn’t expect this - we haven’t done enough shopping," he said.


But Kareem al-Mousawi, a 50-year-old resident, says he supports the security measures, “Taking a day or so off is better than a child being injured or a civilian getting killed."


Yaseen Madhloom and Safaal Mansoor are IWPR trainee journalists in Iraq.


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