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Iraqi Sunnis Brace For Election

Soldiers, patients and prisoners began voting in national elections, three days ahead of the general population, while insurgents denounced the balloting as a "satanic project" but did not threaten to attack polling stations.

The early voting went ahead Monday despite the sound of detonations rumbling across the capital and at least 15 deaths in ongoing violence.

U.S. President George W. Bush offered encouraging words from Washington to Iraqi voters but cautioned that the parliamentary elections "won't be perfect." Asked about the number of Iraqi casualties from the war and the insurgency,

: "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis."

Despite a newly released statement by al Qaeda calling the election "satanic," the absence of a clear-cut threat could reflect the growing interest among Sunni Arabs, the foundation of the insurgency, to take part in the election. The Sunni decision to boycott the January ballot left parliament in the hands of Shiites and Kurds — a move which increased communal friction and cost the Sunnis considerable influence in drafting the constitution.

But Shiites didn't hesitate to show their strength in numbers, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan reports. The streets of Sadr City, a slum where Shiites were terrorized by Saddam Hussein,

of "Yes, yes to Islam," to voice what they want their government to look like after Thursday's election.

In related developments:

  • A U.S. soldier was killed Monday in a bombing in Baghdad, and another American soldier attached to the Marines died the day before in a suicide bombing west of the capital near the city of Ramadi, the U.S. command said. The deaths brought to at least 2,144 the number of U.S. military members killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
  • Most Iraqis disapprove of the presence of U.S. forces in their country, yet they are optimistic about Iraq's future and their own personal lives, according to a new poll. More than two-thirds of those surveyed oppose the presence of troops from the United States and its coalition partners and less than half, 44 percent, say their country is better off now than it was before the war.
  • There's still no word on , reports CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier. There's been an unprecedented cry for the activists' release, but there's been no reply from the abductors. A different group claimed it has already executed American contractor Richard Schultz but they've failed to provide video evidence.
  • An empty minibus loaded with explosives blew up Monday near the Kindi hospital in east Baghdad, killing three civilians and injuring 13, including five police officers, authorities said. Police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said the van's driver abandoned it and ran.
  • In a rare joint statement, Al Qaeda in Iraq and four other Islamic extremist groups denounced the election as a "satanic project" and said that "to engage in the so-called political process" violates "the legitimate policy approved by God."

    The groups vowed to "continue our jihad (holy war) ... to establish an Islamic state ruled by the book (the Quran) and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad."

    However, the statement contained no clear threat to disrupt voting as in the run-up to the Jan. 30 election for an interim parliament and the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution.

    The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it appeared on a Web site that often publishes extremist material.

    A leaflet that appeared Monday in the Baghdad Sunni stronghold of Azamiyah acknowledged that Sunni Arabs could make gains in the election but that "fighting will continue with the infidels and their followers."

    The statement was unsigned but was written in a style favored by Islamic extremists.

    U.S. officials hope for a large turnout among the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, a development which could produce a government capable of winning the trust of the Sunnis and defusing the insurgency. That would enable U.S. and other foreign troops to begin heading home next year.

    "Many Sunnis are campaigning vigorously for office this time around," Bush said. "Many Sunni parties that opposed the constitution have registered to compete in this week's vote."

    In the first day of early voting, about 250,000 Iraqis — soldiers, police, hospital patients and prisoners — cast ballots, according to election official Abdul-Hussein Hendawi. Iraqi television aired footage showing inmates in orange jumpsuits depositing their ballots in jailhouse boxes.

    Iraqi troops at a base in volatile Anbar province marched to a base in Ramadi to cast their ballots, chanting that they were prepared to win the battle against terrorists, reports CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick. They voted Monday because all 2,000 of these Iraqi soldiers will be on duty election day protecting polling places.

    The U.S.-led multinational force said 90 percent of all eligible detainees held in facilities under its control participated in the vote. It did not release the number represented by that percentage. Suspected insurgents held in detention but not convicted were eligible to vote, officials said.

    Deposed leader Saddam Hussein, who is jailed and facing trial for the deaths of more than 140 Shiites in 1982, could also vote, but it was not known if he did.

    Abroad, an estimated 1.5 million expatriate Iraqis will begin voting Tuesday over a two-day period in polling centers in 15 countries including the United States.

    Most of the 15 million registered voters go to the polls Thursday.

    Sunni Arab politicians have promised an end to what they term abuse at the hands of the Shiite-dominated security services. As voting began, the Human Rights Ministry and the U.S. military said that 13 prisoners were hospitalized after being found at an overcrowded prison run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.

    Later Monday, Al-Jazeera television aired a video allegedly showing abuse at another Interior Ministry facility in western Baghdad. The footage showed dozens of men, many with welts and bruises. The station did not say how it obtained the footage or when the alleged incidents took place.

    Bush said Iraqi prisoners held in secret detention centers apparently were beaten and tortured.

    "This conduct is unacceptable," Bush said in the Philadelphia speech. "Those who committed these crimes must be held to account."

    Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, ordered an investigation into what he described as an "unhealthy phenomenon." A similar case also surfaced last month.

    "I will not allow such treatment of any prisoner," al-Jaafari said during a news conference.

    Discovery of the first detention center last month led to strong condemnation by the U.S. and to the assignment of Justice Department officials to help in a wider investigation.

    Responding to reports of a second center, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said abuse was contrary to Iraqi policy and that all facilities maintained by the government would be investigated with the help of the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.

    "Clearly, there is a problem in Iraq and clearly the Iraqis understand that and are working to address it," he said. "It's a process that will not be resolved overnight."

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