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Voting Begins, Violence Escalates

As U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers step up security to brace for Sunday's vote, Iraqis living overseas have already begun casting ballots.

Iraqi expatriates began casting ballots in Sydney Friday in their nation's first independent elections in more than 50 years.

Amid tight security at a converted furniture warehouse, young children mingled with elderly Kurdish women in head-to-toe black robes. About two-dozen people jostled to be among the first to vote at 7 a.m., which was 3 a.m. EST.

"This is a long dream that now comes true," said 56-year-old Karim Jari before casting his vote. "We hope this is a new beginning."

But meanwhile Thursday, 11 Iraqis and one U.S. Marine were killed as insurgents clashed with U.S. troops and blew up a school slated to serve as a polling center, pre-election violence that followed the deadliest day for U.S. troops since the war's start.

About 300,000 Iraqi, U.S. and other multinational troops and police will provide security for the in-country voting, which will take place at 5,300 polling centers.

Australia is one of 14 nations where Iraqis living outside their country can vote — and the first country in the world to begin collecting ballots because of its time zone. In Iraq, the vote is only Sunday. But Iraqis living outside their country can vote between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. local time on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Many historians consider the last free elections in Iraq to have taken place in 1953, when opposition won seats in an election held under British colonial influence. Iraq was a constitutional monarchy at the time.

In other developments:

  • Senator Ted Kennedy says the American military's continued presence in Iraq is fanning the flames of conflict. The Massachusetts Democrat is calling for a "new plan" to bring U-S troops home. In remarks prepared for a speech in Washington, Kennedy says the U-S military presence in Iraq "has become part of the problem, not part of the solution." Kennedy is not the first member of Congress to call for withdrawing troops, but he's the first senator to do so.
  • 30 U.S. Marines and one Navy sailor died in a helicopter crash in bad weather in the western desert Wednesday. That, combined with attack deaths, made Wednesday the deadliest single day for Americans since the Iraq war began nearly two years ago. The helicopter, a CH-53E Super Stallion, was carrying personnel from the 1st Marine Division when it went down about near the town of Rutbah.
  • A U.S. soldier died from a gunshot wound early Thursday on a base near Tikrit in what the American military command called an accident.
  • Another U.S. soldier was injured when his convoy was attacked early Thursday near Kirkuk by small arms fire and a roadside bomb, said Master Sgt. Robert Powell.
  • Australian officials announced that one of two car bombings on Baghdad's dangerous airport road Wednesday had injured eight Australian soldiers riding in a convoy escorting Australian government officials.
  • A Muslim youth group in Brazil issued an appeal for the kidnappers of a Brazilian hostage to release him. The appeal by the Alliance of Muslim Youth, broadcast on Al-Jazeera, noted that many Brazilians had opposed the Iraq war.
  • Three Iraqis were killed and seven injured when a roadside bomb missed a U.S. convoy in Mahmoudiya area, 20 miles south of Baghdad on Thursday morning, according to the area's hospital director, Dawoud al-Taie.
  • Near Tikrit, a roadside bomb killed one Iraqi bystander and narrowly missed another passing U.S. military convoy, police said. The attack happened on a road near former dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, said police Lt. Shalan Allawi.
  • In Samarra, armed men blew up a local school administration building on Thursday morning after first ordering the staff to leave, said police Lt. Qassim Mohammed. The destroyed building had been scheduled to be a voting center in Sunday's elections. Sporadic clashes also erupted in Samarra on Thursday morning between U.S. troops and armed men, killing one Iraqi civilian and injuring another, Mohammed said.
  • In Baqouba, the body of a colonel in the former Iraqi intelligence during Saddam's era, Talib Minshid, was found in the city, according to a Baqouba hospital official, Mohammed Ali. Minshid had been abducted by armed men two days ago. In the same town, one Iraqi police officer was killed and four others injured by a suicide car bomb Thursday, according to Adel Mulan, the head of the Diyala provincial police force.

    U.S. troops packed extra uniforms and ammunition before moving out of their main base Thursday to take up positions around Baghdad, part of a massive security operation to protect voters during weekend elections that insurgents have vowed to disrupt.

    Iraqi police and soldiers will play the more visible role, manning checkpoints and securing the polls — many of which have already been bombed and rocketed by insurgents ahead of Sunday's vote.

    American troops will be around, nonetheless — backing up the Iraqis in the event of major violence the Iraqis can't handle, U.S. and Iraqi commanders said.

    The U.S. presence could make American troops easier targets, and it also has raised concerns the United States might be seen as orchestrating the elections.

    Patrol boats will ply the country's rivers, tanks will protect important roads and bridges, and warplanes will streak overhead. Medical teams will be on alert and nationwide restrictions on traffic will be imposed from Saturday to Monday to try to deter car bombs.

    Insurgents have promised to disrupt the voting with car bombings and other attacks, and U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of increased violence ahead of the vote. The bloodshed continued Thursday, with bombings and gunfire from militants reported in several cities.

    Voters will choose a National Assembly that will govern the country and draft a permanent constitution, and also choose provincial councils in the 18 provinces. Those living in the Kurdish self-governing region of the north will also choose a regional parliament.

    To prevent major disruptions, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib has announced the curfew would be extended from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. starting Friday through Monday.

    The government has already said it will close Baghdad International Airport and seal the nation's borders during the election period. Weapons will be banned, and al-Naqib announced rewards for Iraqis who turn in "terrorists."

    Local officials have been authorized to add extra security measures in their own areas if they see fit. Many details of the overall security plan have been kept secret, officials say, to avoid tipping off the rebels.

    At the same time, U.S. teams also have been out in villages and towns across Iraq encouraging people to vote. A respectable turnout in the face of insurgent threats would be seen as rejection of the insurgency by millions of rank-and-file Iraqis.

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