U.S. announces tightened security as election nears
Tape declares 'fierce war' on democracy.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq acknowledged serious problems ahead of next weekend's election but gave assurance Sunday that "great efforts" were being made so every Iraqi can vote. In an audiotape posted on the Web, a speaker claiming to be Iraq's most feared terrorist declared "fierce war" on democracy, raising the stakes in the vote.
Rebels who have vowed to disrupt the balloting blew up a designated polling station near Hillah south of Baghdad and stormed a police station in Ramadi west of the capital, authorities said.
A U.S. soldier was killed Saturday on a security patrol in the northern city of Mosul, the military said Sunday. Large explosions and heavy gunfire also were heard in eastern Mosul late Sunday.
U.S. and Iraqi officials fear more such attacks in the run-up to the Jan. 30 election and have announced massive security measures to protect voters. Iraqis will choose a 275-seat National Assembly and provincial councils in Iraq's 18 provinces in the first nationwide balloting since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Large turnouts are expected among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims in the south and minority Kurds in the northeast. But the big question is whether Sunni Arabs, who form the core of the insurgency, will defy rebel threats and their clergy's calls for a boycott and participate in substantial numbers.
Failure of significant numbers of Sunnis to participate would call into question the legitimacy of the new Iraqi leadership, widening the gulf among the country's ethnic and religious groups and setting the stage for even more turmoil.
"The Iraqis will be -- will be just fine," Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice told reporters Sunday at the White House. "They're starting a process and this is an important step, a first step for them in this democratic process."
In a series of interviews Sunday on American television talk shows, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte acknowledged an increase in rebel intimidation of Iraqi officials and security forces and said serious security problems remain in the Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.
"But security measures are being taken, by both the multinational forces here in Iraq as well as the Iraqi armed forces and police," Negroponte told "Fox News Sunday."
"There will be some problematic areas ... But even there, great efforts are being made to enable every Iraqi eligible to do so to be able to vote," he said.
Underscoring the threat, a speaker identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- the leader of Iraq's Al-Qaida affiliate -- condemned the election, branding candidates as "demi-idols" and saying those who vote for them "are infidels" -- a clear threat to the safety of all those who participate in the balloting.
"We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology," the speaker said in an audiotape posted Sunday on an Islamic Web site. "Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it."
The speaker warned Iraqis to be careful of "the enemy's plan to implement so-called democracy in your country." He said the Americans have engineered the election to install Shiite Muslims in power. Al-Zarqawi has in the past branded Shiites as heretics.
The United States has offered a $25 million reward for al-Zarqawi's capture or death -- the same amount as for Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Most of the insurgents are believed to be Sunni Arabs, who lost influence and privilege with the fall of their patron Saddam. Their ranks have been reinforced by non-Iraqi Arab extremists who have come to wage holy war against the Americans.
To encourage as big a turnout of Sunnis as possible, U.S. and Iraqi troops have stepped up security operations in Baghdad, Mosul and other tense areas.
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