U.S. and Iraqi officials are making preparations to ensure security as the upcoming 31 January 2009 provincial elections near. Authorities have announced that transport bans and overnight curfews will be implemented on 30 January until 1 February; curfews will be in effect from 2200-0500 local time in Baghdad and other provincial capitals. Additionally, civilians will be prohibited from carrying guns during this time even if they have a permit. Authorities have also announced that Iraq’s borders will be sealed as a precaution (airport operations will also reportedly be halted on 31 January).
The upcoming elections will be a crucial test for Iraq and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to prove that the security improvements over the past year-18 months can be sustained. The potential for election-related violence is high, as the elections are an opportunity for Sunnis to make political gains and shift the balance of power after boycotting the last elections in 2005. Elections will take place in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces; the three Kurdish provinces and Kirkuk will be excluded. More than 14,000 candidates are competing for 444 seats on the ruling councils; national elections are expected to be held later in the year, though no date has been set.