Iraq government won't postpone elections
The Iraqi government brushed aside Sunni Muslim demands to delay the Jan. 30 election, and a spokesman for the majority Shiite community called the date "nonnegotiable." Insurgents stepped up attacks, blasting U.S. patrols in Baghdad and killing a U.S. soldier north of the capital.
Clashes also occurred Saturday north of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a three-hour gun battle with insurgents who overran a town hall and two police stations, local officials said.
Talk of delaying the election gained momentum after influential Sunni Muslim politicians urged the government to postpone the voting for six months to give authorities time to secure polling stations and to persuade Sunni clerics to abandon their call for an electoral boycott.
But the spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, said the government was sticking by the Jan. 30 date after receiving assurances from the Iraqi Electoral Commission that an election could take place even in Sunni areas wracked by the insurgency.
"The Iraqi government is determined ... to hold elections on time," spokesman Thair al-Naqeeb said. "The Iraqi government, led by the prime minister, is calling on all spectra of the Iraqi people to participate in the elections and to contribute in the elections to build a strong democratic country."
That position was strongly endorsed Saturday by politicians and clerics from the Shiite community, which comprises about 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people and which has been long clamoring for an election.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, said the Shiite leadership would not accept a delay and called this position "nonnegotiable."
He said elections were "the most legitimate way on the international level to express the will of the people," and "all parties have agreed on this date and we cannot take back this position for any reason."
In Baghdad, a major Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, or SCIRI, said 42 parties and individuals from the Shiite and Turkomen communities agreed on a statement affirming support for the Jan. 30 date.
SCIRI official Redha Jawad Taqi said the 42 included the other leading Shiite party, the Islamic Dawa, and the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite once strongly supported by the Pentagon and Washington conservatives.
"The Shiite political council will support the elections," Chalabi said. "We will fight for the elections and will work to ensure that they are held peacefully on the specified date."
Iraq's two major Kurdish political parties said they were ready to take part in national elections on Jan. 30 as planned, but would not object if "other political powers" wanted to postpone the vote.
The Web site of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said Saturday that the party issued a joint statement with the Kurdistan Democratic Party expressing their "readiness to participate at the scheduled time."
Insurgent violence still grips the Sunni areas despite the U.S.-led assault this month on the main insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Baghdad. The attack was launched to try to curb the insurgency so elections could be held nationwide.
An American soldier from the 1st Infantry Division was killed Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. patrol about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Baghdad, the military said.
Two U.S. military vehicles, including an armored shuttle bus, were damaged by a bomb Saturday on the road to Baghdad International Airport, which the U.S. State Department considers one of the most dangerous routes in the country. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Three civilians died and a dozen were injured in other bomb attacks against U.S. convoys in the Baghdad area, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
About 100 insurgents overran the city hall and two police stations in Khalis, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of the capital, but were driven off by American and Iraqi forces after a three-hour gun battle, municipal official Saad Ahmed Abbas said. Al-Jazeera television said three Iraqi security guards were killed.
South of the capital, U.S. Marines, British and Iraqi security forces continued operations against suspected insurgent strongholds near the towns of Latifiyah and Mahmoudiya.
A U.S. military spokesman said 18 suspected insurgents were taken into custody Saturday, bringing to nearly 130 the number of people arrested since the operation began Tuesday. One U.S. Marine was killed two days ago in the operation, the military said Saturday.
Officials also report a massive intimidation campaign by insurgents threatening to kill candidates and others participating in the January ballot. Sunni clerics have urged a boycott to protest the Fallujah attack.
Although Sunni Arabs comprise only about 20 percent of the population, a widespread boycott by the influential community would cost the new government much-needed legitimacy in the eyes of millions of Iraqis, some of whom question whether a valid election can be held with 160,000 U.S. and other foreign troops on Iraqi soil.
"There's no elected and recognized government. There's a government that came with the occupation," Sheik Abdul-Salam al-Kobeisi, a senior Sunni cleric, told Al-Jazeera television. "No one can imagine that a country can be built under occupation."
Shiites generally have refrained from joining the Sunni-led insurgency, believing they will gain power in Iraq anyway through elections because of their force of numbers. Shiite clerics for the most part avoided public criticism of the Fallujah offensive.
Differences between Shiites and Sunnis over the election issue threatens to widen the gap between the two rival communities at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials are appealing for national unity.
U.N. and U.S. officials agreed to a January ballot in a deal with the powerful Shiite clerical leadership to win support for the American formula for transferring power to Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in April 2003.
"If the nation was deprived of this right, I am afraid that many of the Iraqis who remained patient and waited to see a national government will be frustrated and ... will resort to other means which we don't want to see," Hussain al-Shahristani, a prominent Shiite nuclear scientist, told The Associated Press.
Egypt's foreign minister on Saturday again proposed the idea of a conference on Iraq that would include members of both the Iraqi interim government and Iraqi opposition groups.
"The new element is the demand for postponing the elections," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in Cairo. "It (the postponement) might be useful if the Iraqi society agrees on it, and if all sects and (political) shades are pushing in this direction, then it is something that must be studied carefully because it might help in the reconciliation."