Plans unveiled to protect Iraqi voters
Plans have been unveiled to deploy 100,000 Iraqi police and soldiers to stave off a possible bloodbath on election day, as US President George W. Bush said polls would go on as scheduled on January 30.
The deadly violence came as battles between US troops and Iraqi insurgents in the northern city of Mosul killed at least 26, including a US soldier, and 30 people died when a booby-trapped house in Baghdad exploded.
A dozen Iraqi deaths Thursday brought the three-day toll to well over 100.
The grim business of hostage-taking again surfaced, with two Lebanese businessmen kidnapped in an upmarket neighborhood of Baghdad late Wednesday.
On Wednesday, insurgents detonated car bombs against a US patrol and attacked a combat outpost in Mosul triggering air strikes and clashes that left at least 25 rebels dead, the US military said.
A US soldier died of wounds suffered in one of the car bombings, the military announced Thursday.
Despite the volatile situation, Bush insisted elections must go ahead as planned on January 30, even as an Islamic militant group reiterated a threat to sabotage the poll.
A group linked to Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, which claimed responsibility for last week's attack on US troops in Mosul, said in a statement on its website that it would target polling stations.
"It's very important that these elections proceed," Bush said Wednesday.
US and Iraqi officials have said they hope an increase in offensives against insurgents, coupled with airtight security, will allow January 30 voting to go ahead.
Brigadier General Erv Lessel, the US-led military's deputy director of operations, bluntly listed what he expected of insurgents.
"They will ... try to disrupt the process by attacking election officials as well as those Iraqi citizens who have volunteered to be candidates and campaign in the political process. There will be attempted attacks against polling places and polling locations."
Adel Lami, a ranking officer on Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, said "about 100,000 police and national guard will be mobilized."
Lessel said US forces will ramp up their operations ahead of January 30 to disrupt the insurgency, with its turbulent mix of Saddam Hussein loyalists, criminals, Islamic fundamentalists and renegade tribal factions.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, dozens of Kurds protested violence against their community and to demand that regional elections be postponed.
Iraqi voters are to choose a transitional 275-seat National Assembly, a parliament for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and 18 provincial councils.
Meanwhile, the interim government revealed that a US-led raid in recent weeks netted Fadil Hussein Ahmed al-Kurdi, a 26-year-old Kurd suspected of aiding Zarqawi, and two other suspects.
A statement said Kurdi was also known as Abu Ubaida al-Kurdi or simply Ridha.
The government announced on Wednesday the capture of Abu Marwan, a "key leader" of the Zarqawi network in Mosul, on December 23.
Across the country, at least 15 Iraqis have been killed in various attacks by insurgents since Wednesday night, Iraqi security officials said.
Three border policemen were gunned down in Baquba north of Baghdad while on leave, and the son of local police chief was kidnapped.
In the capital, an Iraqi army officer was killed while strolling in the street.
Four civilians were killed in an ambush at Shorgat, north of the capital, while further north two civilians were killed and four hurt when a bomb exploded near their car as it followed a national guard convoy.
Two more Iraqis died and four were wounded when they tried to break through a national guard roadblock in Syniya. A woman was killed and three people wounded by a bomb along the road between Baghdad and Balad. In Samarra, a national guardsman died and four others were wounded in an ambush.
Unrest also hit the country's infrastructure, with a mortar attack late Thursday igniting a fire at the Dura refinery in a southwest Baghdad suburb. The refinery feeds a power plant that provides electricity to the capital and surrounding areas.
After an initial blaze, the fire was contained, a US military spokesperson said.
Masked gunmen also kidnapped two Lebanese businessmen from their home in Baghdad's upscale Mansur neighborhood, police and Lebanese officials said.
About 30 Lebanese working for private companies in Iraq have been kidnapped and later freed. However, in September, one was killed by his captors and three others killed during an attempted kidnap.