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Violence On The Rise Ahead Of Iraq Election

An Iraqi private security officer in Al-Basrah wearing an 'Elect Iraq' badge on his body armor 29 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of Iraq's national elections, insurgents killed at least 15 people in bombings and rocket attacks.

Polling places in at least seven cities were targeted today. But the deadliest attack was in a town northeast of Baghdad near the border with Iran, where a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a U.S.-Iraqi security center. The U.S. military says three Iraqi soldiers and five civilians were killed.

Three civilians were killed in a roadside bombing in the city of Samarra. And attacks on Iraqi military bases killed four soldiers.

The violence comes despite a strict security clampdown across the country aimed at preventing a disruption of tomorrow's vote, the first multiparty election since the 1950s.

Iraq's President Ghazi al-Yawir, speaking today at a Baghdad news conference, said he expects the violence to deter the majority of people from voting.

"What we hope is that all [Iraqis] will take part, but if the majority of the Iraqi people do not take part ... we know that the majority will not take part because of the security situation and not because they are boycotting the elections," al-Yawir said. "There are only very few who will boycott, but the majority has decided not to participate out of fear that their [fellow] voters will [also] not go to ballot centers in places that lack security.'

Expatriate Vote

Meanwhile, yesterday thousands of Iraqi expatriates began casting their ballots for the historic election.

"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, who cast his vote in California.

Arkin Alaboudy, who also voted in California, 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.

The violence came after a warning by the Al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has vowed to attack voters.
"We know that the majority will not take part because of the security situation and not because they are boycotting the elections." -- Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawir

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."