Bomb hits Shiite political party
Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 11:12 p.m.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A suicide bomber struck the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's biggest Shiite political party Tuesday, killing three people, as the government announced plans to close borders and restrict movements to bolster security in the national election. Three candidates were slain as insurgents intensified their campaign to subvert the ballot.
The Cabinet member responsible for internal security urged fellow Sunni Arabs to disregard threats by Sunni extremists and vote in the Jan. 30 election, in which Iraqis will choose a 275-member National Assembly and regional legislatures. Otherwise, the minister warned, the country will slide into civil war.
In a positive development, a Catholic archbishop kidnapped in northern Iraq was released Tuesday without payment of ransom, the Vatican said. Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, an Iraqi, said he believes he was kidnapped by mistake.
But an American soldier was killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing in Baghdad, and more foreigners were reported kidnapped, including Lebanese businessman Jebrail Adeeb Azar and eight Chinese construction workers. The Chinese were shown being held hostage by gunmen claiming the captives worked for a company that deals with Americans. China's official Xinhua News Agency said diplomats were "making all efforts to rescue" the hostages, who disappeared last week while traveling to Jordan.
The suicide driver detonated his vehicle after security guards stopped it at a checkpoint in front of offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, one of the major groups contesting the election. The Shiite party, known as SCIRI, has close ties to Iran and is strongly opposed by Sunni Muslim militants.
Iraqi police said the bomber and two others died and nine people were wounded, including three police. The blast gouged a crater in the pavement, left several vehicles in flames and spread shredded debris on the street in the Jadriyah district.
"SCIRI will not be frightened by such an act," party spokesman Ridha Jawad said. "SCIRI will continue the march toward building Iraq, establishing justice and holding the elections."
Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgents, have stepped up attacks on Shiites to frighten them into staying home on election day. Although many Sunni clerics and others oppose the election, Shiite leaders have told their followers that voting is their religious duty.
Shiites comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and are expected to gain the political power long denied them by the Sunni Arab community, estimated at about 20 percent. Large turnouts are expected in the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad and in Kurdish-controlled regions of the north.
Insurgents have warned people to stay away from the polls and have threatened candidates. Gunmen shot and killed three candidates, officials said Tuesday. Two of them belonged to Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's political coalition, the Iraqi National Accord.
Alaa Hamid, who was running for the National Assembly, was killed Monday in Iraq's second largest city, Basra, an official said. Hamid was also the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Olympic Committee in Basra, which had been relatively quiet.
Riad Radi, who was contesting the local race for Basra's provincial council, died Sunday when masked gunmen fired on his car as he was driving with his family, the official said.
The third candidate, Shaker Jabbar Sahla, was shot dead in Baghdad on Monday. He was a Shiite running for the National Assembly on the Constitutional Monarchy Movement ticket, headed by a cousin of Iraq's last king.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear that a Sunni boycott could cast doubt on the legitimacy of a new government, heighten tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and fuel the Sunni-led insurgency.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Flash Hassan al-Naqib, a Sunni, told reporters he expects Sunni insurgents to escalate attacks before the election, especially in the Baghdad area, to discourage a big voter turnout.
"If any group does not participate in the elections, it will constitute treason," al-Naqib said, adding that "boycotting the elections will not produce a National Assembly that represents the Iraqi people" but instead will bring on "a civil war that will divide the country."
To curb election day violence, Iraqi authorities announced they will close the nation's borders for three days starting Jan. 29, restrict travel inside the country and expand the hours of the nighttime curfew. About 300,000 Iraqi and multinational troops will provide security - with Iraq's fledgling forces taking the primary role.
In the run-up to the election, U.S. troops have increased raids in insurgency flashpoints, arresting scores of suspected guerrillas. Hundreds of troops from the U.S. Army's 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment have been dispatched to Mosul, the main northern city and an insurgent stronghold.
President Bush talked about election security during conversations Tuesday with Allawi, the prime minister, and Jordan's King Abdullah, the White House announced.
"We want to make sure that the Iraqis have the best possible election, that as many people in Iraq who want to, are able to participate in the election process," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
In Baghdad, the chief U.N. election coordinator in Iraq said the ballot would take place as planned unless there was a massive onslaught of violence.
"We're hoping that this won't happened," said Carlos Valenzuela, a Colombian who has worked in 14 elections. "The intimidation of electoral workers has been quite high and very serious."
FYI: U.S. war deaths
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