Iraq's most wanted man Abu Musab al-Zarqawi yesterday declared all-out war on next week's vote in his latest salvo to frighten Iraqis away from the poll and rob the milestone event of legitimacy.
The Jan. 30 election is a "wicked trap aimed at putting the Rafidha [Shiites] in the seat of power in Iraq," said the voice attributed to Zarqawi, in a message posted on an Islamic Web site.
It was the second inflammatory message from the al-Qaeda frontman in Iraq since Thursday as he sought to instigate violence among the country's fractious mix of Shiites and Sunnis ahead of the first free elections in half a century.
Since Friday, rebels have responded to Zarqawi's rebel call as car bombs have torn apart a Shiite mosque and wedding party in the Baghdad region, killing nearly 30 people. A third car bomb wounded six Iraqi national guard outside the Shiite city of Hilla.
Leading Shiite politician Abdel Aziz Hakim -- whose list is expected to sweep the elections -- said the attacks were the latest effort by Zarqawi and other extremists trying to stoke civil war.
Seeking to stave off a bloodbath, Interior Minister Falah Naquib announced a tough package of security measures Saturday that will effectively seal Iraq off from the outside world for the elections.
Naquib warned that the government was prepared for the worst as the insurgency sought to deter Iraqis from casting a ballot in the election for a 275-seat parliament that will draft Iraq's permanent constitution.
"We do expect an escalation by these terrorist forces," the minister said. "There are many attempts to incite the violence. We will do our best to protect the civilians."
* 19,000 candidates will be contesting seats in the National Assembly, Kurdish assembly and other provinces
* There are around 12.5 million registered voters
* The election is supported by UN resolution 1546, by the Arab League, Washington, London and numerous other governments
* Twenty five percent of the National Assembly will be women
Source: The Guardian
Naquib acknowledged that no plan could be airtight in the face of determined efforts by militant groups.
Security steps include an expansion of the curfews already in place in some Iraqi cities including the capital, the temporary closure of Baghdad's international airport and traffic restrictions.
As Naquib sought to instill confidence in the country's estimated 14.2 million voters, rebels carried on bombings and shootings.
A US soldier was killed in a firefight on Saturday in the restive northern city of Mosul, where elections are in doubt, and a woman was killed and two other civilians were wounded in a bomb blast in the southern Baghdad suburb of Dura.
Calmer Kurdish region
While Iraq's northern Kurdish and southern Shiite regions are relatively calm, central Iraq has been dogged by the lethal insurgency among its minority Sunni Muslim population who fear the political ascendency of the long oppressed Shiites.
In the latest hostage drama, the Chinese embassy confirmed that eight Chinese hostages captured four days ago and held by Iraqi insurgents had been released. But it said it had no word on their whereabouts.
Another armed group announced it was holding a Brazilian hostage after killing a Briton and an Iraqi in an attack on a security firm earlier in the week.
A statement from the group, calling itself the "Mujahedeen Squadrons," was received by Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera.
A third Sunni militant group, the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sunna said it had shot dead 15 members of the Iraqi army, in a message posted on its Internet site.
Meanwhile, some 400 extra British troops were due to arrive at their base in Iraq at the weekend to bolster security in the runup to the elections, the defense ministry said on Saturday.