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Mass Resignations Before Iraq Vote

U.S. and Iraqi officials are scrambling to recruit new police and election workers in Mosul after thousands of them resigned in the face of rebel intimidation. A new police chief was appointed a week ago to command a force of barely 1,000 police. Last November the city had 5,000 police.

Similar mass resignations are believed to have occurred in other Sunni Muslim areas of northern, central and western Iraq.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that the security threat to the Jan. 30 election was worse than in last October's nationwide balloting in Afghanistan and that it was impossible to guarantee "absolute security" against the "extraordinary intimidation that the enemy is undertaking."

"I would underscore that there was intimidation in Afghanistan — the Taliban threatened all kinds of violence against people who registered or people who voted," Wolfowitz told reporters Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia. "But I don't believe they ever got around to shooting election workers in the street or kidnapping the children of political candidates."

The Mosul area has emerged as a major flashpoint between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the insurgents, raising fears that the election cannot be held in much of the city, Iraq's third largest.

In the Mosul area, the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team detained 11 suspected insurgents, including an alleged cell leader, and seized weapons and bomb making material in several weekend raids — part of the military's strategy to try to secure the city short of launching an all-out offensive, a military spokesman said Sunday.

East of Mosul, a Katyusha rocket slammed into a home near the Kurdish regional parliament building in Irbil where leaders of the two main Kurdish parties were meeting to discuss the election, a police official said Sunday.

In Baghdad, gunmen in police uniform on Sunday ambushed a car carrying a prominent female Shiite candidate in this month's general election, but she escaped injury when her bodyguards returned fire, one of her aides said.

Salama al-Khafaji was traveling in central Baghdad when gunmen opened fire from a car and a motorcycle, according to the aide, Sheik Fateh Kashf al-Ghataa, who riding with her. Their security guards returned fire and the gunmen fled.

The attack was the second attempt on al-Khafaji's life since May, when gunmen ambushed her convoy as she headed back to Baghdad from the holy Shiite city of Najaf south of the capital. Her son and one of her bodyguards were killed in that attack.

Also Sunday, insurgents attacked an Iraqi National Guard patrol south of Baghdad, injuring two guardsmen, one of them critically, police Lt. Adnan Abdul-Allah said.

West of the capital, in the city of Ramadi, five explosions rocked a joint U.S.-Iraqi National Guard base, sending columns of smoke rising above the area, witnesses said. Sporadic clashes were reported in the city center.

Elsewhere, U.S. troops fired on a car that sped toward them near the central city of Samarra on Sunday morning, wounding two people, the military said. A spokesman said ground troops fired warning shots before aiming directly at the vehicle. The driver and a passenger were wounded.

Iraqi police and several witnesses, however, reported that four people were killed and that the vehicle was hit by tank fire.

A major insurgent group claimed responsibility Sunday for kidnapping 15 Iraqi National Guard members who were reported missing last week. The 15 guardsmen had been pulled from a bus near their base in the town of Hit, 90 miles west of Baghdad.

A statement posted on an Islamic Web site took responsibility on behalf of Ansar al-Sunnah.

"Your brothers were able to carry off a well-turned ambush against the crusaders' right hand in Iraq," the statement said, using "crusaders" as a term for Western forces.

It gave no indication of the men's fate. The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified.

Ansar al-Sunnah has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including a December suicide bombing that killed 22 people, most of them Americans, at a U.S. military dining tent on a base in Mosul.

The group is also blamed in the August executions of 12 Nepalese construction workers and twin suicide bombings in February that killed 109 members of Iraq's assertive Kurd minority.

Elsewhere, about 300 followers of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began a three-day sit-in in front of the Oil Ministry in Baghdad to protest gasoline shortages that have caused hours-long waits at gas stations.

About a dozen of them entered the ministry and complained to Minister Thamir Ghadbhan, asking why U.S. troops have fuel for their vehicles and Iraqis don't.

Meanwhile, the ministry announced that Iraq expects to resume pumping crude oil from its northern oil fields to the export terminal of Ceyhan in 10 days.

The flow of oil through the northern pipeline has halted since an explosion caused by saboteurs on Dec. 18.

A ministry statement said repair work on the damaged export pipeline that carries crude oil from Kirkuk oil fields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan was expected to finish in 10 days and exports were to restart immediately after.

Iraq's northern pipeline, the target of repeated insurgent attacks, was pumping around 400,000 barrels a day before the latest attack. The storage facilities at Ceyhan ran dry last month.

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