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Attacks, protests erupt in Iraq

Post-election period of relative peace ends

BAGHDAD -- A rash of roadside bombings and shootings and a series of bitter demonstrations across Iraq yesterday ended a relatively peaceful stretch since parliamentary elections a week and a half ago.

In the capital city, insurgents set an American tank ablaze, causing an undisclosed number of casualties, and elsewhere in the country explosions and assassinations killed Iraqi civilians and security forces.

The violence occurred after more than a week of discontent and acrimony among some voters over the preliminary results of the Dec. 15 balloting for the first permanent national government since the US-led 2003 invasion.

With those early tabulations showing a likely landslide victory for Shi'ite religious parties, losing slates and their supporters have cried foul. More than 1,000 fraud complaints have been filed with Iraqi election officials and waves of protests have been held in and around the capital.

''With these election results, you're giving the resistance a reason to continue their resistance," said Nabeal Mohammad Younis, a professor of political science and a Sunni Arab nationalist.

At the heart of the dispute is the Sunnis' fundamental refusal to come to peace with their minority status -- as shown by numerous demographic studies, the food rationing card system, and results of multiple elections -- as well as the inability of secular Iraqis to connect with the country's majority of rural or recently urbanized pious Shi'ite poor.

US officials have become resigned to the looming election results. Since the vote, both Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have visited Iraq and met with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, of the religious Shi'ite coalition. Western officials have begun optimistically likening the ascendant Shi'ite religious political parties to the US-backed Christian democratic parties that dominated German and Italian politics after World War II.

At the same time, angry protests about the vote took place in cities across Iraq against a backdrop of violence after a relative lull of almost two weeks.

Early on Christmas Day, an American tank hit a roadside bomb on a Baghdad highway, setting it ablaze, according to Iraqi officials. The US military confirmed the report, but would not release details on casualties. The US military also announced that a soldier from Task Force Baghdad had died yesterday from injuries in a roadside bomb attack, and that, on Saturday, US troops had shot and killed three gunmen who attacked a patrol near Ad Duluiyah, north of Baghdad.

Assassinations and bombings continued throughout the day in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Among people shot in Baghdad was a bank official. In Tikrit, north of the capital, rebels targeted Governor Hamad Hamoud, who escaped unscathed from a bombing on the road to Baiji.

Two Iraqi soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on an Iraqi army base in Mahmoudiya. Another mortar blast injured two people near the ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad. An Iraqi police patrol hit a roadside bomb near the capital's Shaab stadium. Three officers were wounded in the explosion. Iraqi soldiers also hit a roadside bomb near the city's heavily fortified Green Zone. Eleven people were injured.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen attacked a police checkpoint. Officers killed one of the insurgents, but others fled, and 10 minutes later, a bomb exploded nearby, wounding two. Later in the day, the convoy of a Kurdish official hit a car bomb, injuring four bodyguards and three civilians.

One of the largest protests yesterday, with more than 1,000 demonstrators, took place in Baqubah, northeast of the capital.

In the northern city of Mosul, students took to the streets, protesting the alleged assassination of Qusai Salahaddin, a Sunni Arab student leader with ties to a political party in Mosul. Salahaddin, who had headed an earlier demonstration, was abducted Friday, said Khalid Othman, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party in Mosul. His body was found yesterday and his funeral morphed into a demonstration against the current Shi'ite-Kurdish coalition government.

In the Western city of Fallujah, a gathering of Sunni families who assembled to bid their relatives goodbye as they left on a pilgrimage to Mecca, turned into a protest as residents demanded a rerun of the election, the withdrawal of American troops from the city, and lower gasoline prices. The cost of fuel has skyrocketed since Dec. 15.

In the impoverished Sadr City district of Baghdad yesterday, hundreds of Shi'ites, including police officers, marched in support of the apparently victorious Shi'ite religious slate and the current government. Some held up signs saying ''no, no to Allawi," referring to former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi.

Despite the claims of election malfeasance issued made by Sunnis and secular Shi'ites, early election results roughly match those of the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum. If anything, the numbers show Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis might have performed slightly better this time compared to the referendum.

Sunni Arabs have accused high-level election officials of exhibiting bias in favor of the religious Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. But international election officials say the evidence is thin.

Election monitors from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq have been examining disputed ballot boxes to look for discrepancies. On Saturday, election monitors inside the fortified Green Zone began breaking open ballot boxes from six Baghdad election centers to look for obvious signs of vote tampering and ballot stuffing.

Election officials have said that, so far, they have yet to find any dramatic signs of vote fraud, although they continue to investigate about 35 complaints deemed serious, as well as several allegations that election officials might have been party to vote rigging.

''This election has been one of the most observed in the whole world," Adil al-Lami, head of the IECI, said yesterday.

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