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State of Emergency in Diyala

Police tighten up security as voting centre comes under fire just hours after its location is disclosed.
By Aqil Jabbar

The chief of police in the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala has declared a state of emergency and announced a new curfew.


General Waleed Khalid Abdul-Salam’s January 24 announcement came a day after four mortar shells hit a polling station in the provincial capital of Baaqubah, destroying more than half the building. No casualties were reported.


The local office of Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission had announced only the previous evening night that the site was a designated voting centre.


South of Baghdad, local people in the city of Hilla said they would move out of their homes near a polling station on election day.


In Diyala, General Abdul-Salam said there would be a curfew in the province from seven in the evening to six in the morning, and cars would have to stay at least 50 metres away from police or military vehicles.


Police and National Guard forces have been deployed to all areas of Baaqubah and checkpoints have been set up at one-kilometre intervals on all main roads in the city.


Law-enforcement units also blocked off streets leading to the polling station, which is normally the Rawdhat al-Baraim al-Hayat kindergarten, and residents living nearby have been evacuated.


Police officer Ali Shakir said the first mortar rounds hit the polling station around 5.40 am on January 23, when there was no one in the area.


Some Baaqubah residents said the mortar attack provides further reason for them to stay at home on January 30, when Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a 275-member National Assembly.


Baaqubah, about 50 kilometres north-east of Baghdad, has seen an increased amount of violence in the weeks leading up to the elections. On January 13, a car bomb killed seven Iraqis, including four policemen.


Saib Mahdi al-Mayahi, who lives near the polling station, said he will not participate in the elections out of fear.


“I am sure that I’ll die if I vote," said al-Mayahi. "I won't die for the sake of voting for candidates whom I don’t know."


The violence in Baaqubah showed no signs of letting up. About an hour after the mortar attack, a bomb went off on al-Jumhuriyyah bridge in the city while an American patrol was passing. Reports on casualties are unclear, but a helicopter was at the scene airlifting out the injured.


Almost two hours later, a police patrol was attacked by armed men. Eyewitnesses said a policeman was injured, but officials at the al-Ghalibiyyah police station refused to comment on casualties.


Some residents expressed disappointment and anger at the deteriorating security situation. Ammar Jameel, 39, a bus driver who travels between Baghdad and Diyala province, said it would have been better for Iraqis if Saddam Hussein had stayed in power.


"Now there is no fuel, no gas, no kerosene, no electricity, no security,” said Jameel. “There is nothing at all."


But others were hopeful that the elections would bring an improvement in Iraq’s security situation.


"All of this will come to an end,” said Naji Ubaid Al-Rubaii, 25, owner of a barber shop. “What matters is that we’ve got rid of Saddam Hussein. There will come a day when we get rid of his followers, who are planting the car bombs."


In the Babil province, south of Baghdad, families living near a polling station in Hilla said they would be moving out for the duration of election day, out of fear that the area may be a target for suicide bombings and other attacks.


The families decided to leave after the United States military conducted security checks in their area, where the al-Jawahiri primary school is to be used as a polling station. The security checks conducted on January 20, the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, caused panic among residents of the Muharibeen neighbourhood.


Um Haider, 40, a teacher at al-Jawahiri school, said she would be among those temporarily leaving the area, and housewife Um Samah, 50, told IWPR, “My family and I will be taking part in the elections, but our house is so close to the polling centre that we will leave home on election day.”


Hamdan Kadim, 40, said he had feared an all-out assault on the area after US forces arrived and began patrolling the streets and alleys.


But despite the scare, Kadim plans to stay in his home, and said most people here were eager to vote following the years of oppression and intimidation.


A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the authorities were in control of routes leading to polling stations, and would prevent insurgent attacks.


Aqil Jabbar is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.


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