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Iraq Battens Down

Just ahead of the first free balloting in Iraq in half a century, the nation battened down for the vote, imposing a 7 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew and closing Baghdad International Airport. Five U.S. soldiers were killed in the capital and insurgents blasted polling stations across the country.

The curfew will remain in effect through Monday and the nation's borders will be sealed for the election period. Medical teams are on alert and nationwide restrictions on traffic will be imposed from Saturday to Monday to try and deter car bombs.

The surveillance and patrols are part of a massive effort to throw the insurgents off-stride, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather in Baghdad. But the curfew couldn't keep

-- and killing ground -- with running gun battles and automatic weapons' fire echoing across the city throughout the night, Rather reports.

In hopes of discouraging Iraqis from voting in Sunday's election — 21 months after Saddam Hussein's downfall in April 2003 — insurgents have accelerated attacks, sending a message that if Iraqis suffer deaths and injuries on election day, "you have only yourselves to blame."

About 300,000 Iraqi, American and other multinational troops and police will provide security for the voting at 5,300 polling centers.

Voters will choose a 275-member National Assembly and governing councils in the 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish-ruled area will choose a new regional parliament.

CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that for weeks,

have been directed at Iraqis to persuade them that voting will improve their lives. The ads have featured messages of women's rights, no more beheadings and the compelling image of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Palmer reports.

In other developments:

  • Insurgents killed five U.S. soldiers, set off a suicide car bomb that killed four policemen in Baghdad and targeted more polling sites in at least six cities across the country, two days ahead of elections.
  • An American OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter also crashed Friday night in southwestern Baghdad, U.S. officials said. There was no indication of hostile fire and no word on the fate of the crew, the officials said.
  • Iraqi officials Friday announced the arrests of three more purported lieutenants of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, including his military adviser and chief of operations in Baghdad.
  • On Friday, a bomb went off near a ballot center in Iskandariyah, the latest sign of electoral violence in the town of 200,000 people south of Baghdad. U.S. soldiers also arrested a prominent Sunni Arab cleric and two of his brothers, raiding their home at dawn.
  • With the declaration "freedom is on the march," President Bush said the Iraqi elections Sunday will serve as an example to the rest of the Middle East. Speaking at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's ceremonial swearing-in at the State Department Friday, the president linked the voting to elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine and among the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.
  • Expatriate Iraqis began casting ballots amid tight security in early voting in 14 countries from Australia to Sweden. "This is a long dream that now comes true," said 56-year-old Karim Jari before casting his vote in Sydney, Australia, where young children mingled in line with elderly Kurdish women in head-to-toe black robes and men in colorful traditional costumes.
  • President Bush, in an interview published in The New York Times on Friday, said he would withdraw the 150,000 U.S. forces from Iraq if the new government formed after Sunday's vote asks for a pullout. But Bush said he expected the country's new leaders would want multinational forces to stay. "I've, you know, heard the voices of the people that presumably will be in a position of responsibility after these elections — although you never know," Bush said. "But it seems like most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until Iraqis are able to fight.

    Expatriate Iraqis began casting ballots amid tight security in early voting in 14 countries from Australia to Sweden to the United States.

    There were few election posters or banners Friday but plenty of graffiti promising death to voters in Youssifiyah, a heavily Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad, where nostalgia for Saddam endures and hostility toward the United States is widespread.

    Majority Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population, are expected to turn out in large numbers Sunday, as are the Kurds. Iraqis will choose from among 111 lists of candidates for the National Assembly, rather than voting for individuals, and the ticket endorsed by the Shiite clerical hierarchy is expected to fare best.

    Here and elsewhere in Sunni strongholds, however, insurgents do not have to do much to persuade people to boycott the election. Many Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, believe Sunday's balloting will be tainted by the American occupation and Iranian meddling.

    Many plan to stay home, threatening the legitimacy of the vote.

    U.S. officials say security concerns — rather than political convictions — will largely determine who comes out to vote.

    In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte insisted some Sunni Arabs will turn out to vote.

    "Sunnis don't only live in some of these beleaguered provinces, they live here in Baghdad, they live in other parts of the country," Negroponte said on CBS' "The Early Show." "I think you're going to see participation across the board."

    At the United Nations in New York, a spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "everything has been set in place for a valid election process."

    "We're in the middle of a process that will eventually, we hope, produce a democratic system of government, coming out of an autocratic system under Saddam Hussein," spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

    A Western election adviser in Baghdad said Sunni turnout could be as high as 50 percent if election day violence is low and if the boycott call is not heeded. But it could also be as low as 15 percent, the adviser said on condition of anonymity.

    "We applaud the courage of ordinary Iraqis for their refusal to surrender their future to these killers," U.S. President George W. Bush said in Washington.

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