Violence rages in run-up to vote

About 10 percent of eligible voters in the United States signed up to vote during the registration period.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Insurgents stepped up attacks Thursday against polling centers across Iraq, killing at least a dozen people, including a U.S. Marine, in the rebel campaign to frighten Iraqis away from participating in this weekend's election.
Meanwhile, Iraqi expatriates began casting ballots in Sydney today, several jostling to be among the first to vote in Iraq's first independent elections in more than 50 years. Amid tight security at a converted furniture warehouse, young children mingled with elderly Kurdish women in head-to-toe black robes.
"This is a long dream that now comes true," said 56-year-old Karim Jari before casting his vote. "We hope this is a new beginning."
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. About 16 percent of eligible Australian voters were expected to cast ballots.
In America
Far fewer Iraqis are expected to vote in the United States than organizers had hoped. About 10 percent of eligible voters in the United States signed up to vote during the nine-day registration period -- 25,946 of the estimated 240,000 eligible, according to the Washington officer of the Iraq-Out-of-Country Voting Program.
The numbers were higher elsewhere -- 13 percent in France, 30 percent in Canada and 50 percent in Denmark, the program said.
Confusion about voter eligibility requirements and long travel distances for registration and voting may have discouraged many, officials said. The balloting will be held through Sunday at centers in the metropolitan areas of Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Nashville, Tenn. Thirteen other countries also are serving as voting sites.
Murder on tape
On Thursday, as part of an intensifying campaign of intimidation, an Al-Qaida affiliate led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi posted a videotape on the Internet showing the murder of a candidate from the party of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
The tape included a warning to Allawi personally: "You traitor, wait for the angel of death."
To protect voters Sunday, hundreds of American soldiers began moving out of their massive garrison on the western edge of Baghdad to take up positions at smaller bases throughout the city to respond more quickly to any election day attacks.
Sunni Muslim insurgents have threatened to disrupt the balloting, when Iraqis choose a 275-member National Assembly and governing councils in the country's 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish self-governing area of the north will select a new regional parliament.
In the former rebel stronghold of Fallujah, where opposition to the balloting is strong, U.S. Marines drove through the city Thursday, urging people through loudspeakers to turn out Sunday. Spokesman 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert said the Marines were "encouraging people to capitalize on this opportunity to exercise their voice by voting in the upcoming free elections."
Iraqi newspapers also published for the first time the names of some 7,000 National Assembly candidates, many of whose identities had been kept secret to protect them from assassination.
Guarding the elections
The interim government will deploy an additional 2,500 troops to help guard the elections, the Defense Ministry said. A total of 300,000 Iraqi and multinational troops will provide security, with Iraq's U.S.-trained forces taking the lead role.
About 9,000 Iraqi troops also are being dispatched to guard oil pipelines, which insurgents repeatedly have targeted.
Iraq's national security adviser, Qassim Dawoud, acknowledged that security remains shaky in four provinces but expressed optimism that extensive security measures would protect voters and encourage turnout.
However, attacks were reported Thursday in at least seven provinces, including relatively peaceful Basra in the south, where militants fired mortar shells at four schools designated as polling stations.
U.S. troops and rebels also exchanged fire Thursday on Haifa Street in central Baghdad, witnesses said.
One Marine was killed and five others were wounded when insurgents fired mortars at their base near Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad in tense Babil province.
An additional three Iraqis were killed and seven injured when a roadside bomb missed a U.S. convoy in Mahmoudiya, a religiously mixed area of Babil province, hospital officials said.
Key trouble spot
Most of the attacks occurred in Salaheddin province in an area of the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad that U.S. and Iraqi officials have identified as one of the key trouble spots. Three Iraqi civilians were killed Thursday when a car bomb exploded in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Hours later, mortar shells fell on a designated polling station in Samarra, police said. Armed men in Samarra blew up a school administration building after first ordering the staff to leave, police Lt. Qassim Mohammed said. The destroyed building had been scheduled to be a voting center Sunday.
Sporadic clashes also erupted in Samarra between U.S. troops and armed men, killing one Iraqi civilian and injuring another, Mohammed said. A suicide car bomber struck a U.S. military convoy near the Salaheddin provincial city of Beiji, witnesses said. No casualties were reported.
A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy killed one Iraqi bystander near the Salaheddin provincial capital of Tikrit, police said.
In Tamim province, insurgents attacked seven polling stations in the city of Kirkuk with mortars and machine guns, killing one policeman, authorities said.
An Iraqi army soldier was killed and seven people were injured when a suicide car bomb exploded near an Iraqi patrol in Baqouba in Diyala province, U.S. officials said.
In Ramadi, capital of the insurgent-plagued province of Anbar, an Iraqi national guard soldier was killed when insurgents attacked a joint U.S.-Iraqi force guarding a voting center at a school, police Lt. Safa al-Obeidi said.

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