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Violence Hits 'Safe' Iraqi Areas

Gunmen killed eight Iraqi National Guard soldiers at a checkpoint in central Iraq on Monday, and eight people died in a suicide car bombing at a police station north of Baghdad.

Some of the latest violence, including a series of weekend attacks along a highway southeast of Baghdad, occurred in provinces which U.S. and Iraqi authorities have deemed safe enough to hold the elections and appear to be attempts to scare the country's majority Shiites away from the Jan. 30 polls.

Underscoring these security concerns, Shiite politician Salama Khafaji, who survived an ambush in central Baghdad Sunday by gunmen wearing police uniforms, said she's canceled campaigning in the south after her staff discovered terrorist checkpoints on major routes.

"What we fear now most is terrorists wearing police uniforms," Khafaji told The Associated Press Monday. "The uniforms and body armor used by the police are available on the market for anyone to buy," she said.

She said the security situation was so bad that she had shelved plans to tour mainly Shiite cities in central and southern Iraq starting Monday. "We sent people out today to check roads in the area but they have reported back that terrorists have set up some road checkpoints."

"Generally I cannot go out and meet people or knock on door to get out the vote like they do in the West," she lamented.

An increasing exodus of Iraqis are fleeing the country ahead of the election to avoid the violence, the Washington Post reports.

On Monday, exiled Iraqis began registering to vote in their homeland's first independent election in nearly 50 years. Iraqis can vote abroad in 14 countries, including the United States, and there is a seven-day registration period that ends Jan. 23. Voting will begin Jan. 28 and continue until the Jan. 30 election in Iraq.

Officials estimate 1.2 million Iraqis are eligible to vote overseas. In Britain, many of the estimated 150,000 Iraqis eligible to vote were confused about the fledgling political process and unsure who to vote for.

"People keep calling us and asking us, 'Who should we vote for?'" said Jabbar Hasan of the Iraqi Community Association, a London-based group for Iraqi expats. "We say it is up to you, you decide. It is a new experience, even for the political parties."

The eight Iraqi National Guard soldiers' deaths occurred at a checkpoint outside a provincial broadcasting center in Buhriz, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Four other Iraqi soldiers were injured in the attack, said an official at the nearby Baqouba hospital, Ali Ahmed. The area is considered a hotspot of the insurgency as violence flares before the Jan. 30 balloting.

The suicide attack occurred at a police station in Beiji, about 155 miles north of Baghdad on the main supply route north. Eight people were killed and 25 were injured, according to a hospital official, but it was unclear if they were police or civilians.

In the Shiite holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad, meanwhile, police dismantled explosives placed in a car, said police spokesman Rahman Mshawi. The car was parked about 3 miles from two of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the city.

Several of the bloodiest attacks in recent days have taken place in provinces that U.S. and Iraqi officials have classified as secure enough to hold elections.

Late Sunday, a police captain, Shakir Aboud, was killed and another policeman was injured when their car was hit by a roadside bomb in Numaniyah, 85 miles southeast of Baghdad, according to a morgue official in Kut's hospital.

The area around Kut has seen a recent flare-up in violence. In a separate attack, two Iraqi government auditors were shot to death late Sunday after armed gunmen stopped their car in Suwaira, near Kut.

The two Iraqis, who worked in the provincial auditing department in Kut, were shot while riding in their car in Suwaira, about 25 miles southeast of Baghdad, according to an official at a Kut hospital.

The town of Suwaira and the city of Kut lie along a main road southeast of Baghdad that, until recently, had served as a safer alternative route for Iraqis traveling from Baghdad to mostly Shiite southern Iraq.

The main road south had earlier been hit with violent attacks and kidnappings in an area dubbed the "triangle of death." Gangs of Sunni Muslim extremists had been targeting foreigners, government officials, security personnel and Shiite Muslims on the main highway.

But in recent days, the area around Kut and Suwaria have seen a flare-up in insurgent violence, apparently committed by insurgents seeking to block traffic south along the alternative route.

On Sunday, a total of 17 people were killed in the Suwaria and Kut area, including three Iraqi policemen and three Iraqi National Guard soldiers killed in separate attacks. As mourners gathered for the policemen's funeral, a suicide bomber killed another seven people — all civilians — and himself.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have classified Kut as among the areas that are secure enough to hold elections.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have insisted that the elections go ahead as scheduled. Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer said that if the elections were postponed for six months, there was no guarantee the violence would wane.

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