Iraqi Election Security

This is so ridiculous I have trouble believing it’s true:

Election security chiefs in Iraq will set up decoy polling centres in an attempt to outwit insurgents who have vowed to target voters with suicide bombs and mortar rounds on Sunday.

Everyone has to vote, right? This means one of two things will happen. One, everyone will know about the decoy sites, and the insurgents will know to avoid them. Or two, no one will know about the decoy sites, voters will flock to them, and it won’t matter to the insurgents that they are decoys.

Posted on January 30, 2005 at 2:00 AM17 Comments


Devin Binger January 30, 2005 2:45 PM

Well, unless it’s a papier-mache tank kind of scenario, where they very publicly set up fake polling stations prior to the election, and then shut them down the day of and actually poll somewhere else. That would serve a purpose if suicide attacks required a lot of planning, good maps, and so on, but it seems to me that a potential suicide bomber would be pretty likely to just walk over to the real one. It might be effective against mortar attacks from outside the city limits, though, as I don’t think insurgents are likely to have forward observers.

Pierce Nichols January 30, 2005 3:00 PM

Devin, why wouldn’t they have forward observers? All a forward observer has to be in this kind of scenario is a guy with a cell phone.

brianosaurus January 30, 2005 3:57 PM

The article also says:

“Even on local voting forms, you only know where you are going. The papers do not tell you where other centres are.???

Sounds to me like each voter, on their voting form, has the address of the polling place for their neighborhood (or however it is being done). If that is the case, no voters should accidentally cast a vote at a fake polling place.

Likewise, there should be no voters GOING to the fake polling places, so a bomber need only drive past, see that no one is there, then drive on to the next one. Driving past a few fakes might give them away, though, if the guards are on the ball and communicating.

So maybe they could have fake voters lining up at the decoys. But fake voters are still real people, and killing a bunch of them is still just as bad, and probably just as effective as if it were a real polling place.

Then again, the insurgents are also Iraqis. They could just look at their own voting forms and get a list of valid polling places.

In any case it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Preston L. Bannister January 30, 2005 5:56 PM

You are making an assumption that the “terrorists” are as well informed as the locals. If the “terrorists” are from out of town (on behalf of someone outside the country) then they may not be as well informed.

In the US you are told the location of your polling place by mail. There are no visible signs to indicate the location of the polling place until the actual day of the election. Someone from outside the neighborhood, can only find the location of the polling place ahead of time from a local, or from the county registar’s website.

In Iraq where the concerns about security are greater, you could simply remove any public notice of the location of the polling place. You would certainly not have a website with the locations listed ahead of time. At the polling place you could have no or minimal visable signage indicating the polling place.

Without local knowledge, this could make it much more difficult for the bad guys to find the polling place and plan and attack.

Davi Ottenheimer January 30, 2005 6:37 PM

Maybe the article itself is a decoy to throw people off real news stories. Here we see another of its hard-hitting insights into the situation in Iraq:
“The security will be better after the election, because the people will have voted for the government they want.”

Who is this David Stringer of PA News? Lets look at his recent news headlines:
— Baroness ‘Alarmed’ by Purple Flour Attack
— Dramatically Changing Fortunes of the Beckhams
— Venus Puts on Show for First Time in 721 Years
— Gay Clubbers ‘May Be Target of Deadly Attacks’

Not exactly someone I would turn people towards for in-depth look at the Iraqi elections.

Compare Mr. Stringer’s article with the BBC, which published today “Correspondents say there was a marked division in turnout between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish strongholds.”

Decoys or not, do not forget that much of the “insurgent” violence also has been directed by one candidate’s group against another. Post election violence would therefore not necessarily dwindle, but rather increase into Somali-esque factions. More and more experts are saying Bush’s fast-forward agenda has precipitated a worst-case scenario leading to a lack of infrastructure and deepening divisions that could lead to civil war:

Nothing has succeeded so far in ending the insurgency since it begain in the summer of 2003. It is not as easy as some would have made it seem in public speeches. In fact, the public figures backing the military have already claimed the Iraqi election a huge success. But an end to the hostilities, let alone the emergence of freedom and democracy, seems highly unlikely if the military also has been ordered to now move the decoys into office.

Håkon January 30, 2005 8:15 PM

Seems that the decoy polling centres only serves the purpose to make it more difficult for any bad guys to plan ahead.

According to New York Times there will be signs pointing out the real centres:
“Even 12 hours before the polls were scheduled to open, the location of most of the 5,300 polling stations in the country remained secret, with officials saying that signs directing voters to them would be pasted on walls overnight.”

I wouldn’t have a clue about how much planning would be reqired for such bomb attacks, but I would guess that psychological warfare is as important as well as real attacks.

bfChris January 30, 2005 8:25 PM

Wait–“David Stringer”?? LOL. A “stringer” is a free-lance writer for newspapers. Usually (s)he stays put in a region, and writes stories when there’s something worth writing about–almost like a sleeper agent. This “David Stringer” is obviously a generic placeholder, so searching for articles written by him is a waste of time.

Davi Ottenheimer January 30, 2005 10:05 PM

You might be correct, but David Stringer is a name listed with the UK Press Association (PA) News. David Stringer also appears as a co-author with Tom Whitehead on some articles. Wait, let me guess, you are going to tell us that “whitehead” really means “government agency” and Tom signifies an intelligence branch? No point in searching for Tom either, eh? Hopefully the PA will clarify the source of the article.

Davi Ottenheimer January 30, 2005 10:48 PM

You asked if “everyone has a right to vote”. Aljazeera has reported that many are unable to vote, perhaps due to fear:

“As polls opened across the country, early signs showed a poor turnout of voters in Mosul. US soldiers were seen driving around city blocks asking why residents were not voting.” […] “In war-ravaged Falluja, nearly all residents stayed at home despite the presence of five polling stations. Only one man was reported to have voted.
Meanwhile, the head of the local council in Samarra said no citizens would vote because of the poor security situation.
‘Nobody will vote in Samarra because of the security situation,’ said Taha Husain, the head of Samarra’s local governing council.”

Again, very interesting to think that the areas with the least resistance obviously expect the heaviest turnout at the polls. I think that is why so many regional experts continue to worry that elections without equal represntation may just further polarize the conflict.

Stuart Berman January 30, 2005 11:53 PM

It seems to me that logistics weigh in pretty heavy with carrying out some of the terrorist activities. I understand that there were prohibitions on the free movement of vehicles during the elections in Iraq, so it is not just a matter of driving around looking for a line of voters. Sure there may be amateurs who simply run out with a grenade but I imagine that most terrorist cells would be very cautious and want to ensure their success with minimal risk to themselves.

A pretty good example is the security fence between Israel and the West Bank. The fence delays the delivery of suicide bombers to their target from 20 minutes in many cases to several hours due to detours and roadblocks. This tactic has dramatically reduced the incidence of suicide bombers into Israel.

guy January 31, 2005 6:15 AM

another interesting thing about iraqi election security is the simple, yet effective way they are preventing double voters: by coloring their index finger with temporary indelible ink. that’s all. focuses on the problem and solves it, without a lot of technological fanfare of ID lists and magnetic authentication.

and stuart – the fence is not a good example for security at all. but that’s a whole nother topic.

Cliff Dunne January 31, 2005 6:41 AM

Decoy polling polling stations, eh? You mean, places that look like polling stations, but where the votes aren’t really counted?

Sounds like good old American democracy to me…

Israel Torres January 31, 2005 8:50 AM

of course the votes are counted. one could say they are Counted In Agreement. 😉

Davi Ottenheimer February 1, 2005 2:55 PM

Do we know whether the election is relevant to the stability and success of democracy in Iraq? Why decoys when democracy is about being free, and why did Diem’s regime fail? Consider this blast from the past (this is spreading on the web but the original text is not available online — hopefully Mr. Grose, a librarian, or even the NYT will confirm?)…

U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote :
Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror

by Peter Grose, Special to the New York Times
9/4/1967: p. 2

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3– United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.

Stephan Samuel February 7, 2005 10:00 AM

I think it’s a little naive to say that we can just remove public notices of where polling places are going to be. Should I assume that the Iraqis have a suitable postal service that can reliably deliver notices of polling places in a timely fashion? When was the last time Iraq had a comprehensive census? Does the government even have a complete list of the name, status and address of each citizen? Does everyone in the country even have a valid, unique and identifiable mailing address? In an environment where there is so little information, sometimes small things can make a big difference.

danny August 4, 2006 8:46 AM

i used to work at the press association and i can confirm that david stringer is a real person — unless the chap i spoke to on the phone numerous times (we were always in separate offices) was a hoaxer. he now works at the associated press.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.