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A hard year ends amid violence, power outages

Attacks kill 24 as US troops confront 2006

BAGHDAD -- Much of Iraq ushered in the new year under a near blackout today as a weeklong power crunch worsened across huge sections of northern and central Iraq.

Around the country, violence flared yesterday after a lull following Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Attacks left at least 24 dead, including a mass murder south of Baghdad with sectarian overtones. A US soldier died from wounds inflicted by a mortar attack in Baghdad, the military said.

Baghdad's sporadic electrical power was cut to about an hour yesterday, causing a legion of private generators to blare almost continuously and dampening the spirits of millions of Iraqis preparing for New Year's Eve, traditionally a joyous time of fireworks, family gatherings, and public outings.

''I filled the water tanks," said Firyal Fadil Kafaji, 40, a biology professor at Baghdad University. ''Now we are trying to fill up the generator with gasoline because we are going to have a long night."

US troops, meanwhile, shivered in the cold during a performance by an ''American Idol" singer as part of New Year's Eve celebrations. At Camp Victory, near Baghdad's airport, an ''American Idol 3" finalist, Diana DeGarmo, and other entertainers performed for hundreds of US military personnel.

DeGarmo pulled several soldiers up on stage to dance. She was followed by a comedian, Reggie McFadden, and a country music singer, Michael Peterson, who traveled with General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a six-nation holiday tour to thank the troops.

Pace delivered bags of Starbucks coffee beans and mugs, saying employees of the US chain had donated 18,000 pounds of the beans to share with the US military units he has visited.

The outages added to the frustration building over the steep increase in gasoline prices. Baghdad residents waited as long as three hours in gas lines yesterday despite higher prices. A fuel shortage, and fears of further cuts in gas subsidies, appeared to have prompted the rush to fill up.

Baghdad residents flocked to outdoor markets yesterday, stocking up on gifts and party supplies. But , they braced for a night without heat or lights.

''We are doing our best to clean the house without hot water," said a medical assistant, Diaa Hammed Doulimi.

Doulimi was preparing to receive his parents for New Year's Eve at his west Baghdad home. ''I have a very small generator that I turn on for two hours, as I can't afford to turn it on for more."

The causes of the crisis were disputed. While central government officials blamed the worsening outages on foul weather in the southern ports, local power officials said strikes and threats of violence against truckers had shut down the giant refinery and generation plant at Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad.

As the government tried to gain control of the energy crisis, a rash of killings marred the last day of the year. Gunmen raided a house yesterday afternoon near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing five members of a Sunni Arab family, Iraqi authorities said. In the city of Khalis, 40 miles north of Baghdad, a bomb exploded at about 10 a.m. yesterday, killing five people.

A roadside bomb exploded near the Engineering College of Mustansariya in Baghdad, just after 9 a.m., killing two Iraqi police and wounding six, including two students. Another roadside bomb in Baghdad killed five police officers, , and a bomb targeting a convoy at a crossroad north of Baghdad caused the deaths of two police officers and two civilians, authorities said.

At 10 p.m., a mortar fell on a house in central Baghdad, killing a man and his son, officials said. In addition, a police officer was shot to death in Baghdad's Sadr City.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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