Iraqi officials said Saturday they are considering new measures to protect voters in the Jan. 30 national election, including a three-day, nationwide ban on driving to discourage car-bombings.
Fresh clashes broke out in the troubled northern city of Mosul, where most election officials have fled their jobs in fear. A U.S. military helicopter made an emergency landing in Mosul after drawing ground fire, the U.S. command said.
Also, a U.S. Marine was killed in action Saturday in a tense area just south of Baghdad; the U.S. military claimed insurgents are being aided by former Saddam Hussein loyalists now in Syria; and leading Shiite politicians tried to dispel fears they would impose an Iranian-style clerical regime and appealed to Sunnis to participate in balloting.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear a surge in insurgent attacks as the election approaches. Many members of the Sunni Arab minority are expected to boycott the balloting, and Sunni rebel groups have threatened to attack polling stations.
To prevent that, an Iraqi Cabinet minister told reporters that authorities are considering a number of special measures, including restrictions on the movement of private vehicles, and possible security cordons around polling stations.
Provincial Affairs minister Waeil Abdel-Latif gave no details about the proposed restrictions, but security officials said they included banning all private vehicle traffic across the country for three days around the election. That would make it easier to spot would-be vehicle bombers and to inhibit rebel movements.
"The government is determined to make available facilities and security guarantees to ensure the success of the election," Abdel-Latif said.
In other developments:
Underscoring the security threat, fresh clashes broke out Saturday in the troubled northern city of Mosul between U.S. troops and insurgents, after the rebels blasted an American convoy.
After the blast, insurgents opened fire on American troops, who then raided a nearby agricultural research station looking for the assailants.
A U.S. Army OH58 Kiowa helicopter made an emergency landing in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, after receiving ground fire. The two crew members escaped injury, the command said.
In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. general responsible for security in northern Iraq, said that virtually every election worker in Ninevah province, which includes Mosul, quit recently because of security fears.
Ham said a new election coordinator was scrambling to find workers with about two weeks left before the election and that staffers may have to be sent there from other parts of the country.
"To tell you the truth, we don't know how many staff there actually were," he told reporters. "But we know that at one point, there were essentially none left."
Ham also said there were indications that insurgents were getting support from Iraqis who fled to Syria, about 70 miles west of Mosul, after Saddam's regime collapsed.
"There are some indications, clearly, that the insurgency is receiving some support from former regime forces that are based in Syria," Ham said, echoing allegations by Iraqi officials.
Security fears and opposition within the Sunni community have led to calls by some Sunni politicians to delay the election, a proposal strongly rejected by the U.S. administration and the country's powerful Shiite clerical hierarchy.
Iraqis will choose a 275-member parliament as well as provincial administrations. Voters in the Kurdish autonomous region will also select a new regional parliament.
However, U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that a low Sunni turnout could cast doubt on the new government's legitimacy. Many Sunni Arabs, who make up an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people, fear a loss of political power to the Shiites — an estimated 60 percent of the population.
During a press conference Saturday, leading Shiite politicians sought to dispel fears they would impose an Iranian-style clerical regime and appealed to Sunnis to participate in balloting.
"The issue is who do you want to obey — Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden ... or the Iraqi people," said Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, the government's national security adviser. "There is no intention or plan to form an Islamic or religious state in Iraq ... or an Iranian style government."
Shiite candidate Ahmad Chalabi, once the Pentagon's choice to rule Iraq, said he planned to meet with Sunni leaders to encourage them to vote.
"I believe that this impression that the Sunnis will not vote will be dispelled quickly," he said. "They will vote."
In another development Saturday, the Defense Ministry confirmed a report in a major Arabic daily that an Iraqi woman trained by members of Saddam's regime in Syria tried to assassinate the defense minister but fainted before carrying out her mission.
Al Hayat newspaper quoted Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan as saying the assassination attempt took place in his Baghdad office more than a week ago.
Shaalan told the newspaper that the woman, who is about 40, entered the ministry claiming she wanted to deliver important security information.
"As she was sitting in the presence of several officials from the ministry, she surprised everyone by taking out a pistol she was carrying and pointed it at me from a distance of about one meter, but in the last moment she collapsed and started crying," he was quoted as saying.