Iraq considers new ways to protect voters
Iraqi officials said Saturday they are considering new measures to protect voters in the Jan. 30 national election, including a three-day, nationwide ban on driving to discourage car-bombings. Fresh clashes broke out in the troubled northern city of Mosul, where most election officials have fled their jobs in fear.
A U.S. military helicopter made an emergency landing in Mosul after drawing ground fire, the U.S. command said. And a U.S. Marine was killed in action Saturday in a tense area just south of Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear a surge in insurgent attacks as the election approaches. Many members of the Sunni Arab minority are expected to boycott the balloting, and Sunni rebel groups have threatened to attack polling stations.
To prevent that, an Iraqi Cabinet minister told reporters that authorities are considering a number of special measures, including restrictions on the movement of private vehicles, and possible security cordons around polling stations.
Provincial Affairs minister Waeil Abdel-Latif gave no details about the proposed restrictions, but security officials said they included banning all private vehicle traffic across the country for three days around the election. That would make it easier to spot would-be vehicle bombers and to inhibit rebel movements.
"The government is determined to make available facilities and security guarantees to ensure the success of the election," Abdel-Latif said.
Underscoring the security threat, fresh clashes broke out Saturday in Mosul between U.S. troops and insurgents after the rebels blasted an American convoy.
After the blast, insurgents opened fire on American troops, who then raided a nearby agricultural research station looking for the assailants.
A U.S. Army OH58 Kiowa helicopter made an emergency landing in Mosul, Iraq (news - web sites)'s third-largest city, after receiving ground fire. The two crew members escaped injury, the command said.
In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. general responsible for security in northern Iraq, said that virtually every election worker in Ninevah province, which includes Mosul, quit recently because of security fears.
Ham said a new election coordinator was scrambling to find workers with about two weeks left before the election and that staffers may have to be sent there from other parts of the country.
"To tell you the truth, we don't know how many staff there actually were," he told reporters. "But we know that at one point, there were essentially none left."
Ham also said there were indications that insurgents were getting support from Iraqis who fled to Syria, about 70 miles west of Mosul, after Saddam's regime collapsed, echoing allegations by Iraqi officials.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, three mortar shells exploded Saturday near the heavily guarded Green Zone, causing no casualties but sending American and Iraqi officials scurrying for cover. It marked the third straight day of rebel attacks on the zone, the nerve center of the U.S. and Iraqi administration, after a lull of a couple of weeks.
A roadside bomb ripped through a U.S. convoy Saturday on the western edge of Baghdad, destroying a truck, police Lt. Akram al-Zubaie said. No casualties were reported.
U.S. troops also arrested six suspected insurgents, including a former Iraqi general, in raids around Baghdad, U.S. officials said. The general, who was not identified, was suspected of planning insurgent attacks.
Separately, an Iraqi insurgent group claimed responsibility Saturday for the kidnapping of 15 Iraqi National Guard members. The guardsmen were pulled from a bus Friday near their base in the town of Hit, 90 miles west of Baghdad.
A statement posted on an Islamic Web site took responsibility on behalf of Ansar al-Sunnah but said nothing of the men's fate.
It was Ansar al-Sunnah that claimed responsibility for the December suicide bombing that killed 22 people, most of them Americans, at a U.S. military mess tent in Mosul.
A police checkpoint southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk also was attacked on Saturday, with a policeman killed and four others seriously wounded, officials said. Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin, the area's Iraqi National Guard commander, said the assailants waited until they were close to the checkpoint before opening fire.
Turkey's CNN-Turk television reported that a car bomb exploded late Saturday near a local parliament building Irbil, 200 miles north of Baghdad, killing at least seven people as Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani left a meeting to discuss the elections. However, an official with Barzani's group the Kurdistan Democratic Party denied the report.
The Kurdish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press in Baghdad by telephone that a mortar shell exploded in a city park, causing no casualties or damage.
Security fears and opposition within the Sunni community have led to calls by some Sunni politicians to delay the election, a proposal strongly rejected by the U.S. administration and the country's powerful Shiite clerical hierarchy.
Iraqis will choose a 275-member parliament as well as provincial administrations. Voters in the Kurdish autonomous region will also select a new regional parliament.
However, U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that a low Sunni turnout could cast doubt on the new government's legitimacy. Many Sunni Arabs, who make up an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people, fear a loss of political power to the Shiites ¡ª an estimated 60 percent of the population.
During a press conference Saturday, leading Shiite politicians sought to dispel fears they would impose an Iranian-style clerical regime and appealed to Sunnis to participate in balloting.
"The issue is who do you want to obey ¡ª Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden ... or the Iraqi people," said Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, the government's national security adviser. "There is no intention or plan to form an Islamic or religious state in Iraq ... or an Iranian style government."
Shiite candidate Ahmad Chalabi, once the Pentagon's choice to rule Iraq, said he planned to meet with Sunni leaders to encourage them to vote.
"I believe that this impression that the Sunnis will not vote will be dispelled quickly," he said. "They will vote."
In another development Saturday, the Defense Ministry confirmed a report in a major Arabic daily that an Iraqi woman trained by members of Saddam's regime in Syria tried to assassinate the defense minister but collapsed before carrying out her mission.
Al Hayat newspaper quoted Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan as saying the assassination attempt took place in his Baghdad office more than a week ago.
Shaalan told the newspaper that the woman, who is about 40, entered the ministry claiming she wanted to deliver important security information.
"As she was sitting in the presence of several officials from the ministry, she surprised everyone by taking out a pistol she was carrying and pointed it at me from a distance of about one meter, but in the last moment she collapsed and started crying," he was quoted as saying.