November 28, 2004

Iraq Says Elections Must Go Ahead

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's deputy prime minister on Sunday said that holding elections in January will be "a serious challenge" but insisted they must go ahead as scheduled. U.S. troops and Iraqi paramilitary police arrested 43 suspected insurgents in the northern city of Mosul, the military said.

Barham Saleh said delaying the vote would have "serious ramifications to the political process" and would bolster the cause of terrorists.

"Under the law it cannot be postponed and the government is working on the premise that the elections will be held on time," Saleh told the British Broadcasting Corp. in London.

Iraq's continuing insurgency is hampering reconstruction and threatens national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. U.S. officials and their British allies see the elections as a key step toward returning power to Iraqis, a prerequisite for the withdrawal of occupation forces.

Saleh acknowledged there were security problems in areas of Iraq but said the assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah would deny the terrorists "a major safe haven."

"Sticking to that timetable will be difficult, will be a serious challenge," he said. "But delaying elections will be much more difficult because it will have serious ramifications to the political process, to the issue of legitimacy, and surely all of us do not want to give the terrorists the slightest of technical wins in that situation."

Talk of delaying the election gained momentum after influential Sunni Muslim politicians urged the government to postpone the voting for six months to give authorities time to secure polling stations and to persuade Sunni clerics to abandon their call for an electoral boycott.

But the spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, said Saturday that the government was sticking by the Jan. 30 date after receiving assurances from the Iraqi Electoral Commission that an election could take place even in Sunni areas wracked by the insurgency.

"The Iraqi government is determined ... to hold elections on time," spokesman Thair al-Naqeeb said. "The Iraqi government, led by the prime minister, is calling on all spectra of the Iraqi people to participate in the elections and to contribute in the elections to build a strong democratic country."

The 43 suspected insurgents were arrested as part of an ongoing operation to re-establish control of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, a military statement said.

Members of Task Force Olympia - which is responsible for security in Mosul and northern Iraq - and Iraqi police commandos conducted a series of raids throughout the city on Saturday, the statement said.

At least 50 people have been murdered in Mosul in the past 10 days. Most of the victims are believed to have been supporters of Iraq's interim government or members of its fledgeling security forces.

The killings appear to be part of a campaign of violence against government supporters launched by rebels after an armed uprising in the city earlier this month. The murders have cast doubt on the Iraqi forces' ability to protect the country.

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were injured early Sunday when a car bomb exploded next to their military convoy on the road leading to Baghdad's airport, a military statement said. The bomb damaged one of the vehicles, the military said, and two soldiers were taken to a military hospital.

The military statement said there were no reported civilian casualties. But the interim government's Youth Ministry reported that its general director, Ahmed Faiq, and his bodyguard were injured in the attack.

Fadhil Jawad, a resident who said he watched the attack from the roof of his home, described a late-model luxury car overtaking the six-vehicle convoy moments before exploding in a ball of fire.

Jawad said that two of the Humvees in the convoy were destroyed by the blast and the rest scattered off the road. Two Blackhawk helicopters arrived and evacuated wounded soldiers, he said.

A military spokesman said he couldn't comment on the report that two vehicles were destroyed.

The highway leading from downtown to the international airport is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Iraq for U.S. troops. Insurgents regularly target military convoys and combat patrols on the busy thoroughfare.

In Samarra, a car bomb exploded Sunday near a high school, killing three people and injuring five others, police said.

The blast occurred near the school in the 7-Nissan district of the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad, Maj. Qahtan Mohammed said.

U.S. and Iraqi troops regained control of Samarra from insurgents during military operations in September but the city remains uneasy.


Associated Press reporter Ed Johnson contributed to this report from London.