Iraq shuts down borders and prepares for elections

With parliamentary elections just days away, Iraq has closed its international borders and imposed a nighttime curfew around boundaries, Iraq's interior minister said Sunday.

"The international crossing borders and the borders and passageways for travelers between Iraq and Syria will be closed with the exception of the commercial trucks authorized by the Iraqi government," Minister Bayan Jabr said.

"We didn't only close the Syrian borders, we closed all the borders."

According to Jabr there is a 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in the "demilitarized zone" along the borders, a restriction in place until the end of the month.

Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls Thursday to elect 275 members to four-year terms in the National Assembly. Its members will choose the president, prime minister and Cabinet.

"We have a security plan for each city which will guarantee the transfer of the ballot boxes safely to the electoral commission," he said. "We have security people watching this, and these people are responsible for preventing fraud."

Iraq and U.S. officials have said that defeating the insurgency will come through political means, not through military operations, therefore it is important to get Sunni Arabs - who make up a large portion of the insurgency and between 15 and 20 percent of the population - involved.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad predicted very large numbers of Sunnis - including some from the ranks of the insurgency - would vote.

Sunnis largely boycotted January's election for the transitional National Assembly. When the constitution was ratified in October, more Sunnis voted, and Khalilzad said Sunday they are a potentially powerful minority.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, downplayed the significance of the election, however, saying it was less "a turning point" and more "a continuation of moving towards a safer, a stronger, a more democratic, a more prosperous Iraq that operates under the rule of law."

Frist predicted a high voter turnout, and Sen. Joseph Biden, the minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said that was the key to successful elections.

Family and friends of four Western humanitarian workers in the meantime held hostage in Iraq were waiting with growing concern on Sunday as a deadline to kill them passed without word from the kidnappers.

A group calling itself the Swords of Justice Brigades threatened to execute the men on Thursday unless all Iraqi prisoners were released. The group later extended its deadline to Saturday, CNN reports.


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