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Iraq closing borders ahead of voting
(AP)
Updated: 2005-12-12 06:32

This time, more Sunni Arab candidates are in the race, and changes in the election law to allocate most seats by province instead of based on a party's nationwide total all but guaranteed a sizable Sunni bloc in the next assembly.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged all Iraqis to vote.

"We need more cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions that are issue-oriented," he told reporters Sunday in Sulaimaniyah. "We need a government that brings Iraqis together."

Khalilzad expressed hope "there will be more Sunni participation and that the turnout should be quite high." Turnout in January was about 58 percent but less than 5 percent in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar, a hotbed of insurgency.

U.S. officials hope that a big Sunni turnout and a strong Sunni bloc in the new parliament will help curb the violence so the United States and its coalition partners can begin drawing down their forces in 2006.

An American soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the U.S. command said. That brought to at least 2,142 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

During an appearance Sunday on CNN's "This Week," Khalilzad held out hope that the election would be a turning point, saying "conditions are moving in a direction that can allow a significant decrease in the size of the American forces starting next year."

Even with a big Sunni vote, Shiites are expected to win the biggest share of parliamentary seats. Shiites form an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people compared to 20 percent for the Sunni Arabs.

On Sunday, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a binding religious decree, or fatwa, instructing followers to vote for candidates "who can be trusted to protect their principles and safeguard their interests."

That appeared to be a veiled endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties that dominates the current government.

Al-Sistani also urged Shiites to avoid "splitting the vote and risking its waste" an admonition apparently directed against former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite running on a ticket with several prominent Sunnis.

Some Sunni religious extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq, have warned Iraqis against voting. But most insurgent groups have avoided threats of violence that helped keep Sunni turnout low in January.

The hard-line Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, which was at the forefront of the January boycott call, has said voting was an individual choice.

Nevertheless, thousands of Iraqi forces will be mustered to protect polling stations, with U.S. and other coalition troops ready to help in the event of a major attack.

Starting at midnight Monday, all borders and airports will be closed and travel across provincial boundaries will be banned until Saturday morning. Private vehicles also were expected to be ordered off the street on election day to prevent car bombs.

Separately, Iraqi and British officials said Sunday they had no word on the fate of four Christian peace activists, more than a day after the expiration of a deadline set by kidnappers to kill them if all prisoners weren't released.


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