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Internet Scares For Iraqi Voters

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In Baghdad, armed men hand out fliers threatening people with death if they vote in the upcoming elections. But on the Internet, a much less risky, but perhaps more effective, campaign against the vote has begun.

Militant groups have stepped up their anti-election propaganda and threatening statements on the Internet, hoping a stepped up cyberspace psychological operation will suppress turnout and damage the election's legitimacy.

Although only about 2 percent of Iraqis have Internet access, due to weak infrastructure, the threats and messages reach the general public when they are reported by local and international television stations and newspapers.

"No doubt, once it reaches the media ... everyone hears about it," said Evan Kohlmann, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert who monitors terror literature on the Internet. That strategy of intimidation, he said, is working "only because these threats are being backed up with severe force."

In the last few days, militants have targeted Iraqi government buildings, voting stations, National Guard troops and Iraqi officials.

Claims of responsibility for the attacks and videos of brazen public slayings of Iraqis flooded Web sites and chat forums known for their militant content. The statements have the same tone, and message: voters are apostates who will be targeted, and they have been warned.

"Your vote is your future," a government-sponsored television ad declares. A militant Internet statement counters: "Voting is nothing but electing deities to worship other than Allah."

On some sites, the dead have risen to condemn the vote.

Contributors have posted the writings of Abu Anas al-Shami, the late spiritual leader of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's militant group, expounding on the evils of democracy. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the of 9/11 attacks is also resurrected — an apparent attempt to spark anti-Western sentiment — with "rare" pictures of his life plastered on many sites.

A video by non-combatant insurgents, called "the cowboys in Iraq," surfaced on Sunday bragging about the efforts of their fellows on the ground. Jan. 30 is hailed as the day of the "great march" when the infidels will be taught a lesson.

Abu Maysarah al-Iraqi, the media coordinator of the al Qaeda group in Iraq, has never been so ubiquitous on the Internet as he has been in recent days. He posted four to five messages just minutes apart. Two hours later, another series of statements were out, also minutes apart. The messages were claims of responsibility for minor attacks.

Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian who is an expert on militant groups, said Iraqi insurgents, unlike Osama bin Laden's original al Qaeda group, still rely heavily on the Internet to promote their activities, and increasingly, for coordination and mobilization.

"They also need to communicate with one another, whether they are under one command or are on the same track. The forums are also a means to send messages for mobilization for the elections," he said. "Mobilization as in ordering attacks. People will get the idea through a clear or hidden message on what to do now."

The increased chatter in the past few days is part of the "40 percent battle," for voter turnout, said Rashwan. The immediate fight is not against American or Iraqi officials, but against a high voter participation, he said.

"Who will win in the battle of 40 percent is the one who will determine" the outcome of the elections, Rashwan said. "If under 40 percent (show up), it will be a disaster" for Iraqi and American officials.

Sarah El Deeb