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March 24, 2006

A commander reflects on Election Day in Iraq

By Lt. Col. John G. Norris
U.S. Army 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry of the Stryker Brigade

MOSUL, Iraq (December 15, 2005)—It is 1:45 a.m. on Election Day here. A Stryker platoon under my command reports that one of their vehicles has struck an IED (an improvised explosive device, or booby trap) hidden in the curb on one of our busy streets in southern Mosul. There is no damage to soldier or Stryker vehicle and they are able to continue the mission and continue route security operations in preparations for the elections to follow in a few hours.

At 5:05 a.m., I receive another report of two IEDs discovered along a busy route. Careful scanning and alert observation by the crew members of a military police platoon avoid injury to the soldiers and innocent civilians. The IED is reduced on-site. The opening of the polling sites at 7 a.m. is not looking very good at this point. I grow concerned that this election will be much more contested than the referendum elections.

The 54 polling sites that I am responsible for open as scheduled. While standing in my command post shortly after opening, I hear a report of an explosion near a polling site. The first report is confusing at best, with my information filtered through several layers. The Iraqi police were on the inside of the polling site, along with election officials and the Iraqi army on the outside securing the outer perimeter, with my forces providing only back-up support if required.

My report has to go through all of these individuals before reaching me. I learn that a school security attendant and two Iraqi policemen had responded to something being dropped in front of the polling site by a man on a bike.

The attendant picked up a box containing a grenade that already had the pin removed, and it exploded, killing him instantly and wounding the two policemen. I later learn that they had responded despite a warning because they wanted to remove any doubt for the many voters still to come. This Iraqi gentleman sacrificed his life unknowingly so other Iraqis could vote in peace. This fatality would be one of only three in all of Iraq on Election Day.

The rest of the day goes much more peacefully. We discover a few more unexploded rounds and one more IED, but all are reduced without incident as the Iraqi people turn out by the thousands. The weather cooperates, with temperatures around 70 degrees and sunny skies. We monitor the status of the elections from a distance with inside reporting from my Iraqi liaison officers working out of my command post.

Most of Election Day is one of celebration. The streets are literally lined with hundreds of people streaming to and from the polling sites. Children play soccer on makeshift fields because the streets are abandoned, thanks to a vehicle ban. The many children on only one city block could fill an entire U.S. elementary school. Everyone is in a happy mood and many wave at the coalition forces.

While patrolling Mosul with my mobile command post, I come across the mayor and the police chief from Hamam Al Lil. They are doing the same thing, checking on their policemen and polling-site security. All is quiet as they report with smiles and ink-stained fingers, indicating they have already participated in this historic event.

The end of the elections comes and all breathe a sigh of relief that the security efforts provided by the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army successfully demonstrate their investment in their future. They have done an excellent job today, and I am proud of my partners. Now, we all wait patiently until the results are counted and published.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com