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Two killed at US embassy on eve of vote
Updated: 2005-01-30 08:43

Iraq stood on the verge of its first election Saturday, its borders and bridges locked down, its hopes on the line. The government urged Iraqis to vote despite their fears of violence, even as insurgents rocketed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, killing two Americans.

U.S. Army soldiers set up a banner giving instructions how to react in case of an attack in the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2005. [AP]

Mortar fire boomed across Baghdad as the world awaited a vote that will echo from militant Islamic Web sites in the Mideast to the halls of the White House. A suicide bomber killed eight people in a Kurdish city near the Iranian border and insurgents blasted polling stations in eight cities.

Iraqi officials have predicted that up to eight million of 14 million voters will turn out for Sunday's election to choose a National Assembly and governing councils in the 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish-run north also will select a regional parliament.

But turnout is uncertain, especially in the Sunni Arab areas of central, northern and western Iraq where the insurgency is most deadly. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops are on the streets and on standby to protect voters.

U.S. tanks and armored vehicles blocked roads and bridges to prevent insurgent movements. Iraqi National Guardsmen, wearing black ski masks to hide their faces, roamed through the capital in SUVs and pickup trucks, machine guns mounted. Police and Iraqi soldiers set up checkpoints and randomly searched cars.

As thousands of ballots arrived at 5,200 polling stations, government spokesman Thaer al-Naqeeb warned Iraqis to expect "sabotage operations" carried out by "the enemies of Iraq."

But he encouraged Iraqis "to overcome their fear" and turn out at polling station. "It is important. It will preserve the integrity of Iraq," he said. "If you vote ... the terrorists will be defeated."

President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab running for a National Assembly seat, expressed hope that turnout will be high." But he acknowledged many Iraqis would probably stay away "because of the security situation."

Despite the lockdown — and a nighttime curfew — guerrillas hit the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone with a rocket Saturday evening, killing a Defense Department civilian and a Navy sailor and wounding four other Americans, according to State Department spokesman Noel Clay in Washington. Another American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. More than 40 American troops have been killed in the past three days.

The election is a major test of President Bush (news - web sites)'s goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 soldiers.

"Tomorrow's election will add to the momentum of democracy," Bush said in his weekly radio address from the White House. "The terrorists and those who benefited from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) know that free elections will expose the emptiness of their vision."

But a low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen the tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are expected to turn out in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.

A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.

Sunni extremists, fearing victory by the Shiites, have called for a boycott, claiming no vote held under U.S. military occupation is legitimate. A Western election adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated Sunni turnout could run anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent.

Throughout the Sunni heartland, there was little enthusiasm for the election.

"We will not vote because our houses have been destroyed," said Alaa Hussein of the Sunni city of Fallujah, which fell to a U.S. assault against insurgents in November. "We don't have electricity or water. The Iraqi National Guard fire at us 24 hours a day. So who will we vote for?"

By contrast, enthusiasm among Shiites was high.

"There's joy everywhere," said Mohammed Hussein, who lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

In Saturday's attacks, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt in front of a police station in the largely Kurdish town of Khanaqin, about 70 miles northeast of Baghdad.

In the insurgent bastion of Ramadi west of the capital, five Iraqis with hands tied behind their backs were found slain on a city street. One was decapitated, and militants accused them of working for Americans.

Fighting raged Saturday night in the ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk between police and insurgents. The clashes occurred in a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood and lasted for about an hour, according to police Brig. Gen. Torhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef.

As part of security measures, Iraqi authorities sealed the borders, blocked traffic from bridges, closed Baghdad's airport and extended a night curfew. Travel was restricted to discourage car bombings.

Most streets in Baghdad were deserted and shops closed. Concrete blast barriers blocked major roads.

All that gave this city of six million the appearance of a war zone, reminiscent of the last days of Saddam's regime.

"We have one life and one God," said Mohammed Omar, 35, repeating an Arabic expression underlining the futility of trying to cheat death. "Our hearts have died. We no longer fear anything. If death is written, then there's nothing that we can do."

Amar Samir, a Christian resident of Baghdad, said it was impossible to believe that things could get worse.

"We get electricity for half an hour and then it disappears for six or longer," Samir said. "These are very strange elections. They will not change a thing.

"Or maybe they will," he added. "But not right away."

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