Iraqis Float Staggered Vote Idea

Iraq's Interior Ministry on Wednesday threw its weight behind a reported suggestion by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to hold next month's national elections over several days, rather than just one.

But Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, which has final say over the scheduled Jan. 30 vote, said it was still trying to confirm Allawi's published comments and insisted no official change had been made in the way voting will be held.

Allawi made the proposal in comments published Tuesday in two European newspapers, Belgium's Le Soir and Switzerland's Le Temps. He said Iraq's upcoming vote could be held over two or three weeks across the country to allow security forces to protect polling stations effectively.

"If people have more than one day to vote, then there will be shorter lines and thus there will be less danger and less victims if something bad happens, although we have taken the necessary measures to secure the voting process," Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Khazim said.

"It is an excellent idea and it will make it easier for the Interior Ministry regarding securing the elections," he said.

In other developments:

  • An Iraqi National Guard soldier was beheaded and his body dumped south of Baghdad, a hospital official said Wednesday. No comment was immediately available from the Iraqi National Guard. Iraq's security forces have been regularly targeted by insurgents, who regard them as collaborators with the U.S.-led coalition.
  • British defense minister Geoff Hoon arrived in the southern city of Basra to confer with local officials. Hoon was scheduled to meet with some of Britain's 9,000 soldiers based around Basra who have recently been engaged in combat operations in central Iraq in support of a U.S.-led effort to clear insurgents from a wide swathe of territory south of Baghdad, spokesman Maj. David Gibb said. Hoon also planned to discuss preparations for Iraq's Jan. 30 elections in talks with the governor of Basra.
  • A cable sent by the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Baghdad has warned that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon, according to government officials cited in a report by The New York Times.
  • After delivering a pep talk designed to energize troops preparing to head for Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld got a little "talking to" himself from disgruntled soldiers. In his prepared remarks, Rumsfeld urged the troops to discount critics of the war in Iraq and to help "win the test of wills" with the insurgents. But some soldiers had criticisms of their own — not of the war itself but of how it is being fought.

    The handling of the vote has become a key issue in Iraq recently, with insurgents threatening to attack polling stations and the country's Sunni Muslim minority demanding a postponement. Some insurgent strongholds have been too dangerous for the registration process to begin.

    President Bush and Iraqi leaders have said the vote will go forward on Jan. 30, as required by the country's interim constitution. The constitution does not mention the possibility of a staggered vote.

    "Everyone — Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Turkomen — should be able to take part in the vote," the Le Soir newspaper quoted Allawi as saying. "That is why I think we can see elections spread over 15 days, or 20, with polls spread over different dates according to the provinces. It would allow for the imposition of adequate security."

    Allawi made the comments during a trip to Jordan, Germany and Russia. In Moscow on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said during a meeting with Allawi that he couldn't see how the vote could take place Jan. 30 with Iraq under foreign occupation.

    Farid Ayar, the spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said his office hadn't been told of Allawi's idea, adding that it wouldn't be Allawi's decision anyhow.

    "We are the ones who set the voting mechanism. We have no information about this suggestion," Ayar said. "We have good relations with Dr. Allawi and we think if he had such an idea he would have proposed it to us before the media."

    Meanwhile, gunmen detonated a roadside bomb next to a U.S. convoy in southern Baghdad and clashes broke out around the U.S. base in Ramadi on Wednesday.

    Hospital officials said three Iraqis were killed and one wounded in the clashes around the base, and it wasn't known if they were insurgents or not. The roadside bomb wounded two American soldiers, who later returned to duty, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Jay Antonelli said.

    Iraqi hospital officials also said six Iraqis were wounded in the bomb that targeted the Americans.

    In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen attempted to storm the town's main police station early Wednesday, Maj. Sadoun Ahmed said.

    Police returned fire before the attackers fled. One policeman and a child caught in the crossfire died in the clash.

    Insurgents routinely attack Iraqi security forces for aiding the U.S.-led military occupation. Samarra has been the scene of regular clashes between coalition forces and militants.

    A series of attacks in recent days have killed more than 80 Iraqis, mostly members of the country's fledgeling security forces.