Only one in four will cast vote, Iraqi minister warns

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The Independent Online

Gunmen struck across Baghdad yesterday, killing 11 policemen and a judge, as senior politicians said they expected a low turnout in the election on 30 January.

Gunmen struck across Baghdad yesterday, killing 11 policemen and a judge, as senior politicians said they expected a low turnout in the election on 30 January.

The gaunt face of an American hostage pleading for his life was once more pictured on video, showing that Iraq remains a very dangerous place for foreigners. Roy Hallum, seized last November in Baghdad, said he was arrested by a "resistance group" because "I have worked with American forces". He added: "I am not asking for help from President Bush because I know of his selfishness and unconcern for those who have been pushed into this hell-hole."

Seven policemen were killed in an ambush in the Rashad district of Baghdad as they checked out a report of a car bomb. There was a gun battle in the same area when police opened fire on men handing out leaflets calling on people not to take part in the election.

Qais Hashim Shameri, the Secretary General of the judges' counsel in the Justice Ministry, died with his bodyguard on his way to work as his car was sprayed with bullets. The Ansar al-Sunna Army, an insurgent group, claimed responsibility, saying he was "one of the heads of the infidelity and apostasy of a new Iraqi government".

The government is planning exceptional security measures for the polls, which will include banning the movement of cars for three days. Voters must walk to cast their ballot and will not be allowed to leave their home district. Many businesses plan to close for five days.

Even so, political leaders suspect there will be a very low turnout. Ayham al-Samarrai, the Minister of Electricity, said yesterday "the vote all over Iraq might be only 25 per cent. I asked 18 senior managers in my ministry if they were going to vote; only one said he would."

The biggest turnout is likely to be in Iraqi Kurdistan, because the Kurds support the US presence and the interim government. It is also safe for them to go to polling stations. Shia voters in southern Iraq may also have little to fear, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia leader, has said that all Iraqis ought to vote.

But Baghdad and the Sunni Arab districts of northern Iraq are very dangerous. Many here will boycott the poll, seeing it as hopelessly tainted because it is taking place under the auspices of the US occupation. Mr Samarrai noted that "a police colonel working to protect our electrical power facilities called Nadir Hassan, along with his five-year-old daughter, were shot to death in their car this morning." He did not think people in middle-class suburbs in Baghdad would care to vote in the circumstances.

A reaction against the religious fanatics leading the Sunni resistance and the Shia religious parties is likely to benefit Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister. "Allawi is now posing as the champion of secularism, though his list is a hotchpotch," Adnan Pachachi, the elder statesman of Iraqi politics and former Foreign Minister, said yesterday. He had sought to get the election postponed, largely because the Sunni community was infuriated by the bloody US assault on Fallujah last November.

Mr Pachachi believed the electoral coalitions, particularly the Shia list put together under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, "will disintegrate after the elections". He expects the government that emerges to be similar to those in Lebanon, with a cabinet made up of representatives of different factions and communities.

The Iraqi government seems determined that, however limited its authority over Iraq, it will keep control of the hundreds of foreign journalists who have arrived to cover the election. Many were queuing up yesterday in the Convention Centre in the Green Zone for the required four types of identity card. Everybody entering the building was searched three times.

The willingness of the US government to provide space on helicopters to move journalists around the country shows that Washington is determined to present the election as a success. There is no doubt that many of the four million Kurds and 15 to 16 million Shias are eager to vote, but the poll is likely to crystallise their differences with the five million Sunni Arabs.

The armed resistance is now so experienced and entrenched that the election is unlikely to have much effect on it. Insurgents have distributed blood-curdling leaflets in Baghdad threatening to deluge polling stations with rockets and mortar fire. A voter "will not be able to imagine what will happen to him and his family for taking part in this crusader's conspiracy to occupy the land of Islam", they said.