Government assures Iraqis that it's security can protect voters

Sunday, January 23, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government pledged Saturday it would do everything in its power to protect voters from insurgent attacks during this month's national elections, as militants announced they'd killed 15 captive Iraqi National Guardsmen for cooperating with the Americans.

Eight other Iraqi guardsmen and an Iraqi civilian were injured Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt near the gate of a military camp near Hillah, Iraqi office said.

Guerrillas in the northern city of Mosul blasted a building to be used as a polling station with machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire Saturday, injuring one civilian, a hospital official said.

Meanwhile, Iraq is facing what appears to be a new surge in kidnappings of foreigners after a decline in recent months. Al-Jazeera television broadcast a videotape in which militants said they had kidnapped a Brazilian engineer in an ambush near Beiji.

The tape did not show the hostage but displayed his identification card, listing his name as Joao Jose Vasconcelos Jr., 55.

Police said the engineer was missing after an ambush in Beiji Wednesday in which a British security guard and an Iraqi colleague were killed.

Faced with the persistent violence -- and expectations it will only increase -- the interior minister announced further security measures for the Jan. 30 balloting, in which Iraqis will choose a new 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial councils.

The minister, Falah al-Naqib, said that Baghdad's international airport would be closed for three days starting on the eve of the balloting. The nighttime curfew in Baghdad and other cities will be extended and restrictions imposed on private vehicles to guard against car bombs, he added.

Al-Naqib told reporters all leaves and passes for police and military forces have been canceled for the election period and that further measures would be announced closer to voting day.

"We have mobilized all our forces as a government," al-Naqib said.

Still, the minister did not play down the gravity of the security threat, nor the difficulties facing this country in organizing and conducting a nationwide election in the midst of a virulent insurgency.

"There are dangers and there are threats to throw the elections process into chaos, but we hope that our security plan will be up to the standards. We don't rule out an escalation from the terrorist forces," he said.

Sunni Muslim rebels have vowed to disrupt the balloting, and Sunni clerics have urged postponement until the security situation has improved. But leaders of the majority Shiites, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, have demanded an election, believing their numbers will bring them power long denied them by Sunni Arabs.

Underscoring the grave security challenge, the insurgent Ansar al-Sunnah Army announced on a Web site that it had killed 15 Iraqi National Guardsmen seized off a commercial bus this month in the provincial town of Hit.

"After the investigation, they confessed to the crimes they have committed with the crusader forces," the group said in the statement. "God's verdict has been carried out against them by shooting them ... They should be a lesson to others."

The claim could not be independently verified, and the statement contained no photographs.

Ansar al-Sunnah Army has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, including a December suicide bombing that killed 22 people, most of them Americans, at a U.S. military mess tent at the northern city of Mosul.

Ansar al-Sunnah Army was also identified as one of the groups involved in the capture of the Brazilian contractor, along with the Mujahedeen Brigades, according to the tape aired by Al-Jazeera.

U.S. and Iraqi officials believe most of the country is secure enough for elections except Baghdad and three mostly Sunni Arab provinces -- Anbar, Ninevah and Salaheddin. Although Iraqis living there will have the chance to vote, insurgent attacks and intimidation may produce a disappointing turnout.

Al-Naqib said the situation was improving in Ninevah, which includes Mosul, after a series of ongoing U.S. and Iraqi military operations there. He said 11 people "specializing in beheadings" had been arrested in Ninevah in recent days.

Security fears may have been responsible in part for discouraging even many of the estimated 1.2 million Iraqis living abroad from registering to vote.

Niurka Pineiro, an official of the International Organization for Migration which is handling the vote in 14 countries, said some people were scared that when they go to polling places in those countries "some sort of mayhem may break out."

The agency extended the deadline for registration by two days -- until Tuesday -- to allow more Iraqi exiles to register.

Also Saturday, insurgents of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Al-Numan Battalion, said in a video broadcast by Al-Arabiya television that they decided to release eight kidnapped Chinese construction workers as a "goodwill gesture."

The men were seized by gunmen Tuesday as they were leaving the country on the western highway to Jordan. There was no sign, however, that the eight had turned up anywhere by Saturday night.

Meanwhile, an official at Iraq's Defense Ministry confirmed Saturday that the ministry had transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from the Iraqi Central Bank to a financial institution in Beirut, Lebanon, to buy weapons -- but did so in a legal manner.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was responding to allegations by prominent Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who demanded an investigation into a decision by Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan to shift $500 million in cash to a bank account in Beirut.

The official said the money transfer was made with the knowledge of the Iraqi Central Bank, the Finance Ministry and the U.S.-led multinational forces. There was no comment from coalition authorities.

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