BAGHDAD, Iraq – Leading Iraqi politicians called Friday for a six-month delay in the Jan. 30 election because of the spiraling violence as U.S. forces uncovered more bodies in the northern city of Mosul (search), apparent victims of an intimidation campaign by insurgents against Iraq's fledgling security forces.
Asked about their demand for the election to be postponed, President George W. Bush (search), at his vacation home in Texas, said, "The Iraqi Election Commission has scheduled elections in January, and I would hope they'd go forward in January."
But the country's deputy prime minister told an audience Friday in Wales that sticking to the election timetable would be difficult because of the security crisis.
As a sign of the worsening situation, authorities also confirmed four Nepalese guards were killed and 12 others wounded in a rocket attack Thursday on their camp in Baghdad's Green Zone (search). Strong explosions were heard Friday night from the outskirts of the embattled capital.
The extremist Ansar al-Sunnah Army (search) claimed responsibility for the Green Zone attack in a Web posting. The same group claimed responsibility for killing 12 Nepalese construction workers last August.
In Fallujah, insurgents ambushed U.S. troops as they entered a home during house-to-house searches in the former militant bastion, killing two Marines and wounding three others, the U.S. military said Friday.
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said only about half the buildings in the city had been cleared despite the collapse of organized insurgent resistance there.
In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, U.S. officials said six bodies were found Friday, bringing the number discovered there over the past two days to 21. In all, 41 bodies have been discovered in the past week.
Eleven of the 41 have been identified as members of the Iraqi security services, apparent targets of insurgents who rose up across the city this month in support of guerrillas fighting in Fallujah.
The city's entire 5,000-member police force disintegrated during the uprising, and Iraqi authorities had to rush in reinforcements from Baghdad and Kurdish-run areas of the north to fill the gap.
"It's a continued campaign of threats, intimidation and murder by insurgents to spread fear into the public," Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a military spokesman in Mosul, said of the assassinations. "Their campaign has been directed at what appears to be Iraqi security forces."
Hastings said that since the Mosul uprising "there's been accelerated and very deliberate attacks on Iraqi security forces.
South of Baghdad, U.S., British and Iraqi forces raided suspected insurgent strongholds around the cities of Latifiyah and Mahmoudiyah, arresting about 70 men suspected of launching attacks in the area.
The raids were part of "Operation Plymouth Rock," launched Tuesday against insurgents operating between the capital and Shiite shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. Multinational commanders hope to close off escape routes for insurgents trying to escape from Fallujah.
With violence showing little sign of abating, opposition to holding elections on Jan. 30 has been growing, especially among Sunni Arab politicians. Sunni clerics have called on Sunnis to abstain from voting, and politicians fear that a successful boycott could deprive the new government of legitimacy.
On Friday, 17 political parties representing Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Christians and secular groups demanded postponing the vote for at least six months until the government is capable of securing polling places.
The declaration was signed at the home of Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi during a meeting attended by three Cabinet ministers. Pachachi, a former foreign minister, said he believed the government was waiting for such a request before seriously considering whether the election can be held as scheduled.
"The government is waiting for an initiative from the political parties to deal with the existing problems related to the timing of the elections," Pachachi said.
Mohsen Abdul Hamid, a Sunni Arab and leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, fears the government will be misunderstood if it requests a delay.
"The government can't talk about that," Abdul Hamid said. He added that Allawi wants the parties "to agree among themselves and to talk to the United Nations so nobody would think that the government wants to remain in power for a longer period of time."
In Wales, Iraq's deputy prime minister, Bahram Saleh, a prominent Kurdish politician, told an audience: "I want the elections to be held on time but it is going to be a tough challenge because the environment of intimidation is a factor."
However, the clerical leadership of the majority Shiite community has insisted that the government stick to the Jan. 30 date. The country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brought hundreds of thousands of followers into the streets last January to demand changes in the U.S. formula for transferring power to the Iraqis.
Any attempt to delay the election without al-Sistani's blessing could trigger a massive backlash within a religious community whose support the United States has sought since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
Postponing the election "would cause a constitutional crisis," Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman of the Iraqi National Congress party, told Al-Jazeera television. "What would guarantee that the security issue will be better after six or seven months from now? We want the Iraqis to have the chance to express their clear opinion through the ballots."
A prominent Shiite political analyst, Ayad Jamal Eldin, said he believed postponing the election would contribute to the security crisis because insurgents would consider the current government illegitimate and "they will continue their acts of sabotage."
The rift between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite community widened with this month's assault on Fallujah. Many of the Iraqi troops who took part in the offensive were Shiites, and the Shiite hierarchy generally avoided criticism of the attack on the Sunni insurgent bastion.