Baghdad eerily quiet ahead of today's election

Democracy:Iraq quietened down on the last day of campaigning for today's election, although a candidate was assassinated and four US soldiers died


Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 1

Campaigning came to a stop around Iraq yesterday to give the country's 15 million voters an opportunity to reflect before deciding who will govern their country for the next four years.

Streets in Baghdad were eerily quiet one day before today's election, with police strictly enforcing a traffic ban. Only the noise from an occasional police siren, sporadic gunshots or US helicopters could be heard. Borders and airports have also been closed and the nighttime curfew has been extended.

Two police officers were killed and four others were injured by a roadside bomb that exploded next to an Interior Ministry patrol in northern Mosul, the city's al-Jumhouri hospital said.

Iraq's election commission said that it had registered 6,655 candidates running on 996 lists and had certified 307 political groups -- either in the form of single candidates or parties -- and 19 coalitions.

Baghdad is Iraq's biggest electoral district with 2,161 candidates running for 59 of the 275 seats in Iraq's parliament, according to the commission's executive director, Adel Ali al-Lami. There are 33,000 polling stations around Iraq.

The Interior Ministry denied reports that a tanker truck filled with thousands of blank ballots had been confiscated in a town near the Iranian border

On the last day of campaigning, a roadside bomb killed four US soldiers and gunmen assassinated a candidate for parliament in this week's election. A Shiite politician escaped injury in a bombing south of Baghdad. The US deaths in northwest Baghdad brought to at least 2,149 the number of US service members to have died since the start of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The US ambassador, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that the total number of abused prisoners found so far in jails run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry came to about 120. The statement by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reinforced Sunni Arab claims of mistreatment by security forces -- a major issue among Sunnis in the election campaign.

Despite the violence, more than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious decree instructing their followers to vote today, boosting US hopes the election will encourage more members of the disaffected minority to abandon the insurgency.

Three of Iraq's leading politicians agreed on Tuesday that a speedy withdrawal by foreign troops before Iraqi forces are ready would cause chaos.

But the three -- former prime minister Ayad Allawi, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Sunni Arab politician Tariq al-Hashimi -- disagreed on the description of US and other foreign troops. Barzani described them as "forces of liberation," while al-Hashimi said they were occupiers.

The three leaders appeared in a debate on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television.

Such debates are rare in the Arab world, where candidates mainly rely on rallies attended by hand-picked followers.