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Insurgents Attack Iraqi Police, Polling Stations

An Iraqi officer blocks a street in Al-Basrah today as part of nationwide efforts to heighten security. Prague, 29 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There have been a number of attacks on Iraqi police and polling stations in Iraq ahead of Sunday's general elections.

Reports say at least eight people were killed in the attacks that targeted mainly northern towns. The violence comes amid a security clampdown in the country in a bid to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote.

Expatriate Vote

Meanwhile, in Maryland yesterday, men were dancing and waving the Kurdish flag at a polling station in the United States.

They're among thousands of Iraqi expatriates who began casting their ballots for a historic election -- the first since the ousting of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces in April 2003.

There were scenes of celebration in polling centers from Australia to Sweden. These two men cast their votes in California.

"I have no words to explain it to you. There are no words that can explain how I feel in my heart," said Sabah Zamagana.

Voter Arkin Alaboudy said, "We were voting before, but we were voting for the same president and dictatorship. So now we are voting for a better person, better president that is trying to help our country."

But across Iraq, cities were like ghost towns early today.

Most of the population waited nervously at home to see if it will be safe enough to take part in the 30 January vote within Iraq.

Security Measures

Land borders and Baghdad's international airport have been closed, a nighttime curfew has gone into effect, and there are restrictions on road traffic in a bid to deter car bombers.

Traffic policeman Captain Hamid Kadhim spoke on one of Baghdad's deserted streets.

"We saw today traffic is sparse because instructions were issued by the concerned authority of imposing a curfew starting from today until 31 January, which will be the end of the elections," Kadhim said. "We pray to the almighty God to protect Iraq and protect its people and pass through this stage peacefully."

But instead, there was more violence today.

At least eight people were killed in a series of insurgent attacks on polling stations.

The casualties came in a suicide bomb attack at a police station in the mostly Kurdish city of Khanaqin, northeast of Baghdad. Attacks were also reported at or near police and polling stations in the northern cities of Dohuk, Irbil, Kirkuk, Hawija, and Bajwan.
Al-Zarqawi's group yesterday called polling stations "centers of infidelity and immorality"

And an Iraqi National Guard barracks was also attacked in the central city of Suwayrah, killing one Iraqi soldier.

The violence came after a warning by the Al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has vowed to attack voters.

An Internet statement from al-Zarqawi's group yesterday called polling stations "centers of infidelity and immorality" and warned Iraqis to stay away.

World leaders have repeatedly urged Iraqis to turn up at the polls.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the election offers an opportunity to move away from violence.

"Elections are the best way to determine any country's future," Annan said. "Please exercise your democratic rights on Sunday [30 January]. Whatever your feelings about how your country reached this point, this election offers an opportunity to move away from violence and uncertainty toward peace and representative government."

Internal Division

But the election has divided Iraq.

The Shi'a majority strongly supports the poll, which is expected to hand them political dominance after decades of oppression under Saddam.

But in the Sunni Arab heartlands, where the insurgency is strongest, few are expected to vote. Several leading Sunni Arab groups are boycotting the polls, saying the climate of violence means the election cannot be free and fair.

(RFE/RL/wire reports)

Related stories:
Iraqis Abroad Vote For Second Day
Iran Turnout Key To Expat Vote
Iraqi Expatriates Cast First Ballots

For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005."