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Iraq: Insurgents Step Up Attacks As Vote Looms --> National Guardsmen on patrol (file photo) 3 January 2005 -- Iraq's national election is on schedule for the end of this month, but security problems in the Sunni-populated center of the country raise serious questions about the extent to which polling can take place there.

The problems are highlighted by recent insurgent attacks on Iraqi National Guardsmen, police stations, and voter-registration centers.

Insurgents in central Iraq have become increasingly bold in attacking Iraq's National Guard -- one of the main forces seeking to ensure election security on 30 January.

Two suicide bombers in a car packed with explosives drove into the path of a bus carrying National Guardsmen yesterday, killing 23 members of the paramilitary force. The attack, outside a U.S. military base near Balad, north of Baghdad, was the deadliest against Iraqi security forces in four months.

An Iraqi National Guard soldier described the bombing to Reuters: "The attack took place at 0800 [local time] in the morning on the way to Sayyid Muhammad Street. A number of the National Guards were heading for work in a bus when suddenly an evil attack took place, killing 25 members of the National Guards in Balad."

Insurgents kept up the pressure today with a suicide car-bomb attack near the headquarters of Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party in Baghdad. The attack, which killed two people, occurred as party officials were due to hold a news conference announcing candidates for the election.

Allawi was not close to the scene of the attack and is reported to be safe.

Sustained Campaign

The bombings are part of a wave of insurgent attacks in past days that have also targeted police, local officials, and some voter registration centers.

Gunmen assassinated two government officials in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, and an Iraqi police major in Baghdad yesterday. On the same day, mortars fired by insurgents landed at two centers for registering voters in the central town of Tikrit.

Insurgent groups have threatened to kill anyone taking part in the election. So far, the campaign in the center of the country has had some success in intimidating election workers.

The election commission in the northern town of Baiji resigned en masse yesterday in the wake of death threats against its members. Earlier yesterday, guerillas in the nearby town of Sharqat ordered municipal employees out of a local government building to be used as a polling center and blew the building up.

National Guardsmen have detained 228 suspected insurgents over the past week in restive areas south of Baghdad.

But as insurgents step up attacks, they appear intent on demonstrating that the police and National Guard cannot protect voters ahead of the poll.

U.S. officials have said that Iraqi security officials will be responsible for security at polling sites while U.S.-led international troops maintain a low profile "just over the horizon." That means out of sight but near enough to rush to the aid of local security forces if necessary.

But analysts say uncertainties over security at polling sites could reduce voter turnout in many Sunni areas. Some Sunni leaders also have called for boycotting the poll, saying it will hand power to Iraq's Shi'a majority.

Joost Hiltermann is a regional expert with the International Crisis Group based in Amman. He says that a low turnout in Sunni areas could benefit the insurgents.

"Sunni Arabs who fear a 'de-privileging' as a result of becoming a political minority in the future Iraq will, by and large, stay away from the polls, thereby ratifying their own exclusion but also giving rise to further insurgency from within their community," Hiltermann said.

The major mainstream Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, withdrew from the National Assembly race last week. The party said yesterday it might also reject the new constitution that is scheduled to be drawn up after the vote.

But top Sunni officials in the government, including interim President Ghazi al-Yawir, have called for the community to take part in the vote. The government is seeking support from tribal and other community leaders to urge Sunnis to go to the polls.

The 30 January vote is to elect a National Assembly that will choose Iraq's next interim government. The assembly also will appoint the body that will write Iraq's first post-Saddam constitution.