In a withering campaign to halt the upcoming vote, forces loyal to the former Baathist party regime of Saddam Hussein and their allies continue to carry out deadly attacks on U.S. troops, representatives of Iraqs interim government, Iraqi police and National Guard units, and election officials. Washington, London, and the interim Iraqi administration of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, however, have maintained that elections will take place as scheduled.
U.S. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of U.S. ground forces in Baghdad, said that four of Iraqs 18 provinces were not secure enough to hold elections, according to the January 7 New York Times. The four provinces are: Baghdad; Anbar, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi; Nineveh, which contains Mosul; and Salahadin, which includes Tikrit, the hometown of Hussein. Those are the four areas that we see enough attacks that we are going to continue to focus our energies, Metz said. The U.S. officer said that stricter and broader curfews would be put in place near the time of the election. The Allawi regime announced the extension of the state of emergency it adopted last October in the lead-up to the U.S.-led assault on Fallujah.
Starting last November the U.S. military began massive ground and air operations aimed at destroying the best units of the former Iraqi military. The Baathists and their supporters were routed from their stronghold in Fallujah after a week of fighting. U.S. troops have continued to pursue them in Mosul, Ramadi, and other cities with a predominantly Sunni population where the Hussein regime had its strongest base.
Iraqi troops are supposed to provide security at some 9,000 polling places. Metz said U.S. troops will be held back, away from voting sites, but close enough to be called in when needed.
Meanwhile, a U.S. warplane dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on a home near Mosul, killing 14 people, among them seven children, reported the Washington Post. According to the January 9 Armed Forces Information Service, a Pentagon publication, the bombing was part of a cordon-and-search operation to capture the leader of a Baathist military cell but struck the wrong target. The report said the U.S. military deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives.
The next day the Iraqi interior ministry reported that at least five Iraqis, two police officers, and three civilians had been shot dead by U.S. troops at a checkpoint in Yussifiyah. Just nine miles south of Baghdad, Yussifiyah is part of a string of cities comprising a Baathist stronghold known as the Triangle of Death. The Marines claimed they opened fire after their convoy struck a roadside bomb, al-Jazeera TV reported. The U.S. military has subsequently denied involvement in the deaths, saying they were the result of insurgent fire.
On January 10, Britains defense secretary Geoffrey Hoon announced that London would send 400 additional troops to Iraq, the BBC reported. The deployment of members of the Cyprus-based First Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, would bring the number of Londons troops in Iraq to just over 9,000. The move highlights Londons firm support for Washingtons course in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Last November, the 850-strong Black Watch regiment took part in the U.S.-led assault on Fallujah and subsequent raids in the Triangle of Death. That regiment returned to Britain but London said another unit would be available if needed. We have always said we would be prepared to send more troops to Iraq if necessary during the elections, Hoon stated.
In escalating attempts to stop the January 30 elections, armed groups are carrying out deadly attacks on civilian and military targets. These have included gruesome acts, such as slitting the throats of policemen or executing election workers in broad daylight. The extent and character of the attacks is having an impact, as participation among Sunnis in the vote is expected to be minimal.
According to the Allawi administration, Baathists are suspected to be responsible for the recent assassination of Iraqi general Jassem al-Obaidi, the manager of Allawis Iraqi Accord Party. Al-Obaidi was shot while traveling in his car accompanied by his daughter. She is in critical condition, said a UPI dispatch.
The body of Ali Ghalib, the head of the Salahuddin provincial council, was found riddled with bullets, according to the January 9 Washington Post. Ghalib was abducted two days earlier while returning to Tikrit from Najaf, where he met with Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani. Ghalib went to Najaf on behalf of Sunni political leaders seeking al-Sistanis support for postponing the election. Ghalibs relatives said they were told by Baathists that Ghalib faced execution if he was found to be cooperating with al-Sistani, according to the Post.
On January 10, the deputy police chief of Baghdad was killed along with his son, also a cop, as they left home to go to work, reported Reuters. The previous week the governor of Baghdad was killed along with several of his bodyguards. As many as 100 Iraqis, mostly from the fledgling Iraqi police and army, were assassinated in similar fashion the first week in January.
A prominent Sunni clerical group met with U.S. officials and offered to help call off a boycott of the elections if Washington set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, al-Jazeera TV reported. Leaders of the group added that ending the boycott doesnt necessarily mean they would advocate taking part in the vote.
While pressuring Sunnis to participate, Washington and its allies are moving full steam ahead with the elections and havent acceded to any demands from Sunni groups. A U.S. embassy spokesman in Baghdad, Robert Callahan, said, We have no intention to establish a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq at present.
So far only the Iraqi Islamic Party, among the Sunni-led groups that had registered for the vote, has withdrawn from the election. The group, however, said it was not calling for a boycott.
In that key area around Baghdad, there is no doubt about it at all, weve got to deal these people a blow, British prime minister Anthony Blair told the BBC. Allawi has also rejected any postponement of the election. The top UN election official in Baghdad said Iraq must push ahead with the election or plunge into crisis, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, in Fallujah only a few thousand of the 250,000 residents of the city have been allowed to return since its takeover by U.S. occupation forces, reported USA Today. Driving through the city its nearly impossible to pick out a structure that isnt damaged, the U.S. daily said. Outside the city, hundreds of Iraqis stood in long lines cordoned off by barbed wire, according to the Knight Ridder news service. At the end of the line, a U.S. soldier sat at a table with an interpreter and asked people their name and marital status, finger printed them, and performed a retina scan for identification.
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