Iraq Sets Election Date

Iraqis chant anti-US and anti-government slogans in front of a US tank after a car bomb exploded killing at least one person in central Baghdad Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004. AP

Iraq's Electoral Commission on Sunday set national elections for Jan. 30, and a spokesman said ballots would be cast nationwide, including in areas now wracked by violence.

The announcement reflects the Iraqi and U.S. government's determination to push ahead with the vote despite escalating unrest - including heavy gunbattles in the streets of Baghdad, an insurgent uprising in Mosul, Iraq's third biggest city, and persistent attacks across a central belt of the country.

Roughly 400,000 Iraqi children are said to be suffering from chronic diarrhea and dangerously low protein levels.

Citing surveys by the UN, aid groups, and the interim Iraqi government, the Washington Post reports acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the coalition forces invaded last year.

Health officials blame dirty water, and a crippled economy, for the sharp spike in childhood malnutrition.

U.S. forces in Mosul found two more bodies, including one of an Iraqi Army soldier, on Sunday near a site where the bodies of nine Iraqi soldiers were found a day before, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings with Task Force Olympia.

The nine, all shot in the head execution-style, were identified as soldiers based at al-Kisik, 30 miles west of Mosul. Four decapitated bodies, still unidentified, were found in Mosul on Tuesday.

In an Internet statement posted Sunday, the terrorist group of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed it killed 17 Iraqi National Guardsmen from al-Kisik. The report couldn't be independently verified. Hastings said he had no report of missing Iraqi guardsmen.

U.S. and Iraqi forces in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, have been working the past week to put down an uprising launched by guerrillas who seized police stations and other sites. The uprising was part of a wave of violence across the country coinciding with the U.S. offensive against the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

In Baghdad, four large explosions shook the area near the U.S.-guarded Green Zone — a frequent target of insurgent mortars and rockets — after sundown Sunday. There was no word on any damage or casualties.

Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said areas still beset by violence — including Fallujah and Mosul — will participate in the elections.

Iraqis will go to the polls to choose a national assembly, which will among other things draft a permanent constitution. The vote is seen as a major step toward building democracy after years of rule by Saddam Hussein.

"No Iraqi province will be excluded because the law considers Iraq as one constituency, and therefore it is not legal to exclude any province," he said.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military said that Iraqi and U.S. forces have detained more than 1,450 people in connection with the Fallujah offensive. More than 400 detainees have already been released after being deemed to be non-combatants.

Northwest of Baghdad, U.S. forces conducted a raid to capture a "high value target" associated with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Haqlaniyah, northwest of the capital, a U.S. spokesman said Sunday. Three people were detained, though the military did not say whether the target was among them.

The raid in Haqlaniyah, about 135 miles from Baghdad, came late Saturday, when troops seized three peope and a weapons cache, 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert said.

Witnesses said U.S. troops raided a Sunni mosque Saturday night, arresting its cleric — Douraid Fakhry — and detaining dozens of residents in nearby homes during a sweep of Haqlaniyah. The U.S. military denied that a mosque was raided in the area.

The government has launched a campaign against some hardline Sunni clerics accused of fueling the insurgency or allowing weapons to be hidden in their mosques. On Friday, Iraqi and U.S. forces raided Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque — one of the country's most important Sunni mosques.

The violence has raised fears that staging elections and setting up voting booths in the most insurgent-torn areas will be impossible. The Fallujah offensive and other U.S. action against the guerrillas has also raised the possibility many in Iraq's Sunni Arab minority will boycot the vote. The effect in either case could serve to make the vote illegitimate.

Sunday was the first time a date for national elections was set; the commission was charged with choosing a date before the end of January.

"Having elections in Iraq are very important, and having them in time is also so important for the Iraqi people to have more security in Iraq," said Salama al-Khafaji, a Shiite member of the interim Iraqi National Assembly.

Iraqi voters will choose representatives for a 275-member national assembly, provincial councils and the national council for Kurdistan. Ayar said that 122 political parties out of 195 applications were accepted and registered for the elections.

The commission has asked the United Nations to send international monitors for the elections. Around 35 U.N. experts have already arrived, he said, adding, "we need as many monitors as possible."

Violence has swelled dramatically in Sunni Muslim areas throughout the central and northern regions of Iraq even as the U.S. military operation against Fallujah winds down.

A suicide car bomber attempted to kill the police chief of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, by ramming his car into Gen. Qais Abdullah's vehicle, police said Sunday. Capt. Hadi Hatif said the attacker's car detonated before it made contact, killing only the bomber in the Saturday incident.

A day earlier, another suicide bomber exploded his car outside the Jabal police station in Hillah, targeting the police commander. Only the bomber died.

Police said Sunday that Iraqi security forces will launch an offensive this week against insurgents operating in a belt of cities south of the capital.

The towns of Haswa, Latifiya, and Mahmoudiya, some 25 miles south of the capital, have been a major area of insurgent activity where U.S. and Iraqi forces have come under repeated attacks by car bombs, rockets, and small arms fire.

Meanwhile, an explosion Sunday near a Shiite mosque in the central Iraqi city of Kufa injured one person, an officer said. A subsequent search of the mosque grounds uncovered a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and a missile in a yard, said Lt. Aquil Jawad of the Iraqi National Guard.

The blast, apparently from a homemade bomb in the trash, caused no damage to the mosque. It was not clear if it was placed on purpose.

The Mahdi army, loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, battled U.S. and Iraqi troops in this region until a peace deal was negotiated in August.
  • Joel Roberts

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