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Election to go ahead, Allawi vows

BAGHDAD -- Facing relentless guerrilla attacks on his security forces and on fellow government officials, including car bombings yesterday that killed more than 25 people, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi vowed yesterday that Iraq would hold national elections as scheduled Jan. 30.

"We are quite aware of the concerns of people regarding the security situation, but we will not allow terrorists to derail the political process," Allawi said at a news conference. "The elections . . . are a great opportunity for the Iraqi people to express their belief in the unity of Iraq."

Sunni Muslim leaders worry that if the vote goes ahead, the only unity will be Shi'ite voters unifying behind Shi'ite candidates and Kurds unifying behind Kurds. With the worst violence ravaging predominantly Sunni areas, the concern is that most Sunni voters will stay home out of fear or dismay.

Many Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of Iraq's population, want the voting postponed. And even some government authorities have suggested that possibility. But Allawi and American officials insist otherwise.

"I haven't given it any thought at all," said Major General Peter Chiarelli of the First Cavalry Division, when asked about a potential delay. "It's clear to me the elections are going to be held on the 30th of January, and all the planning, all the preparation, all the operations we're conducting today are based on that fact."

Chiarelli, who commands more than 35,000 US troops in and around Baghdad, did not say how many of those troops would be out on the streets come Election Day.

"But I promise you that we will be out in force, in support of the Iraqi government, where they want us to be," he said. "We're working those plans right now."

Chiarelli predicted a spike in attacks in the run-up to the elections. Like other US officials, the general argued that the guerrillas see the elections as a significant threat. Delaying the elections, the Americans argue, would be handing the insurgents a victory and encouraging their campaign to topple the interim government that the US-led occupation authorities appointed last year.

"The insurgent . . . is resisting the will of the Iraqi people because he has a private agenda and he is terrified of what the Iraqi people will have to say at the polls," Chiarelli said.

For most of the past year, US officials have been predicting spikes in violence before various political, military, or religious events and milestones. Almost uniformly, those predictions have proved accurate.

Should this one prove correct as well, Iraq is in for a deadly month. Already this week, ambushes, roadside explosions, and suicide car bombings have killed more than 90 police, soldiers, and civilians in at least six of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Car bombings delivered the two worst blows yesterday.

In Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew up a car outside a police academy graduation ceremony. At least 10 police officers were among the 20 people killed, and 40 more people were wounded, military and hospital officials said.

The increase in the targeting of Iraqi soldiers, police, and government officials has been dramatic. In the last four months of 2004 alone, more than 1,300 police were killed, the Associated Press reported, quoting the Interior Ministry.

The slayings are part of an intimidation campaign that US officials say is the greatest challenge facing them and the Iraqi government. Police and soldiers are afraid to show their faces and reveal their identities. Workers are leaving jobs connected with the US-led forces because insurgents consider the workers collaborators with an occupying army.

Many Iraqis are afraid to join the political process.

"To break that cycle of intimidation . . . we're going to need the help of the Iraqi people," Chiarelli said. "In a city like this, someone sees most acts going on, and what we're trying to do is to create a condition that will allow the Iraqis to assist us."

Yet every day, Iraqis see on the news that someone assisting US forces is being killed.

Yesterday in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, the car bombing of a police and Iraqi National Guard checkpoint killed five Iraqi service members and wounded eight, the US military said.

A police colonel was also shot to death in Baqubah, and a leading Sunni politician was found slain in Mosul.

The group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant believed to be behind numerous attacks on Iraqi civilians and security forces, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's fatal ambush of the governor of Baghdad Province.

Chiarelli said the killing of Governor Ali al-Haidari was under investigation. The governor, whom Chiarelli praised as a man of "courageous, pioneering spirit," had rejected US military protection and made a point of using only Iraqi bodyguards, the general said.

Though Haidari had access to an armored vehicle, it was unclear whether he was traveling in it when his convoy was attacked, Chiarelli said.

As the funeral procession for Haidari passed through western Baghdad yesterday, an explosives-filled car following a convoy of US and Iraqi troops detonated nearby. Two Iraqi civilians were killed and 10 were wounded, but the troops escaped injury. It was unclear whether the bombing was aimed at Haidari's mourners.

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