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US keeps locations of Iraqi voting booths secret

ABC News Australia | January 20 2005

US authorities say Iraqis will vote in the insurgent centres of Fallujah and Ramadi but officials will keep the number and location of polling stations secret until the last minute to prevent attacks.

"We're going to hold that right down to the bitter end to ensure that the enemy does not have much time at all, if in fact they decide to plan against those positions," said Lieutenant General John Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Lt Gen Sattler says his goal is to ensure the "preponderance" of the estimated 500,000 voting-age residents of al-Anbar province have an opportunity to safely cast their ballots in the January 30 election.

The poll has emerged as an important test of wills between the insurgents and the US-led coalition.

Lt Gen Sattler says information on polling stations is being kept deliberately vague to make it more difficult for insurgents to plan attacks.

"Right now the enemy is trying to figure out where they're going to be, how many there are going to be, where will they be located, so that he can, in fact, take the scarce resources that he has and he can start planning now," he said.

He says the insurgents "are not that good" at mounting attacks with little preparation.

"It takes them time to surveil, it takes them time to plan," he said.

Al-Anbar, which stretches west of Baghdad to the Syrian border, has been a centre of violent opposition to US forces by both Sunni backers of the former regime of Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremists.

It is one of four Iraqi provinces that Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the number two US commander in Iraq, recently said was not yet ready for safe elections.

But Lt Gen Sattler says voting throughout the province will be safe and secure.

"The citizens of both Fallujah and Ramadi will be afforded the opportunity to vote within their town," he said.

But he says Iraqi election authorities are considering allowing residents of Fallujah who have been left homeless by fighting to vote elsewhere.