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Iraqis' big issue: US exit plan

US troops are vital to security for Sunday's vote, but pressure is growing for them to leave.

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The secrets of security plans for Iraq's landmark elections on Sunday are scrawled on a stack of 3x5-inch cards. At this fortified polling station, they're held by US Army 1st Lt. Thomas Visel as he reviews preparations with Iraqi policemen.

Each card has a map for every voting station in this southern Baghdad district, showing planned Iraqi sniper positions, concrete blast barriers, strings of concertina wire - and the number and role of the Iraqi police and soldiers who will run the election-day show on their own.

"You are looking for someone with especially bulky clothing," Lieutenant Visel, an Army infantryman from Uvalde, Texas, coaches his team. "Do a quick search, then get people into a safer area for another search, because an attack on the line could be as devastating as an attack on the election place."

Few scenes better illustrate the dilemma faced by US forces here. Their presence is vital to security - this election could not be held without them.

But the one thing every Iraqi agrees upon is that occupation should end soon. Though the United States is certain to play a major military role here for the near future, Iraqi politicians face intensifying pressure to speak out against its presence.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi got political mileage out of a recent Arabic statement on his party's website that called for a "conditions- based withdrawal" and talked of a timetable.

After US complaints, Mr. Allawi, who worked closely with the CIA in the 1990s and is the current US favorite, gave a slew of interviews to foreign media, saying there was no timetable, and telling the BBC it was "premature" to talk about a pullout.

"He's got two messages that verge on the contradictory," says a Western diplomat. "He doesn't want to give the impression ... that he wants to get rid of [US-led forces]. But his message to Iraqis is that, 'we have a plan' to do so."


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