Iraq Safer, But Is Democracy Catching?

This story was written by CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick, reporting from Anbar.


(AP Photo/Wathiq Khuzaie)
U.S. Marine Corps Maj. General John Kelly is on his second tour as a commander in Anbar province. He calls the security improvements in what was once Iraq's most dangerous area, "stunning, just stunning."

"It's not a safe place by any means, but the al Qaeda insurgency is gone."

That's one major hurdle out of the way. But Iraq's provincial elections, taking place this Saturday, will be a key test as to whether the Sunni majority in Anbar is now willing to join the country's political process.

Kelly says he tells them, "if you don't vote, don't complain". But he believes they will.

"This is a province that had something like three percent or less vote in the last election. During the month of August, we did a voter registration drive, and virtually 100 percent of the citizens signed up and registered to vote," says Kelly.

On election day, 28,000 police officers from Anbar will protect the province's voters. The police were expected to move into the 227 polling places days beforehand, to secure them.

But Kelly isn't convinced there will be violence in Anbar, and he points out that its not suicide bombers the people here fear most.

"When they talk about security during the elections, they talk about the security of those ballots," he said. "That Shiite officials don't somehow manipulate the vote in Baghdad."

The ballots will be counted first at local polling places, then sealed and moved to a "central location" and "re-counted." Transparency is key, Kelly believes, and he will have his Marines observing much of the local vote counting.

Anbar was once the most dangerous province for U.S. troops, but Kelly now talks of a trust that's developed between himself, his troops and the sheiks and people of the massive western province.

"On the morning after the elections, if I can tell the people here... that in my view, this was a free and transparent election... that the ballots once cast were protected and counted properly, they will accept it," says Kelly.

The commander, who has criticized Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government for what he sees as neglect in Anbar province, adds, "if I can't say it was a good election, the government of Iraq will have some problems."