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Militants launch series of attacks, killing up to 20

BAGHDAD -- Amid increased raids and tightened security by US and Iraqi forces, insurgents carried out a series of attacks yesterday aimed at sowing instability and subverting Sunday's landmark national elections.

The violence killed as many as 20 people, including a US Marine, Iraqi police and soldiers, and several Iraqi civilians. Polling stations, political offices, and police and army installations were targeted.

Nonetheless, preparations for the vote intensified. Withheld until the final hours for security reasons, the names of 7,000 candidates for a new National Assembly were published in Iraqi newspapers. And several candidates defied standing death threats to make brief public campaign appearances.

Violence and turnout are the two main questions heading into Sunday's vote. Many Sunni Muslims express distrust in the elections and vow to stay home. Insurgents have threatened to kill anyone participating in the vote, Iraq's first free elections in more than a half a century.

The Al Qaeda-linked group loyal to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi posted a videotape on the Internet apparently showing the slaying of a political candidate allied with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The tape threatened Allawi himself: ''You traitor, wait for the angel of death."

Minister of State Kasim Daoud said Anbar Province, home to Fallujah and Ramadi, and the northern city of Mosul remained the biggest trouble spots. Recent raids by US and Iraqi forces in and around Mosul have cut into the insurgency's ability to carry out attacks, Daoud said. Most of the rest of the country is ready for elections, he said.

Daoud also said government officials had been in daily talks with Sunni leaders.

American officials have been urging Iraqis, and in particular the minority Sunnis, to vote. Even US forces have joined the campaign: Marines in Anbar Province handed out fliers urging people to vote. In Fallujah, according to the Associated Press, Marines drove through the city using loudspeakers to encourage turnout.

On the security side, US-led coalition troops have staged emergency drills with Iraqi police and soldiers in many of Iraq's 18 provinces, British and American officials said. They are preparing for all possibilities, including that voting might continue past Sunday to a second day. Election officials say that is unlikely.

Those same officials, however, acknowledge that final results may not be known for days. Though some precincts will tally and deliver their votes in short order, the counts from distant districts will be slower arriving in Baghdad. Officials have yet to say whether they will release partial returns.

At stake are 275 seats in a new National Assembly. Local elections will form governing councils for each province. And Kurds will select a new regional parliament for their mostly autonomous region.

Despite the threats, a few candidates staged modest public rallies in Baghdad yesterday, including a political poetry reading by Kurdish candidates who had survived a bomb attack a day earlier.

But most candidates favored the virtual anonymity that has protected them through the campaign, confining themselves to private meetings with influential tribal and religious leaders or living-room visits with small groups of voters.

In Sydney, Iraqi expatriates began casting ballots today, with several jostling to be among the first to vote in Iraq's election. Amid tight security at a converted furniture warehouse, young children mingled with elderly Kurdish women in head-to-toe black robes.

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 Sunday; elsewhere, it runs today through Sunday.

Material from the Associate Press was included in this report.

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