Baghdad Attacks Aim to Disrupt Iraq Vote

Rebel strikes across Baghdad killed five people on Thursday — including three paramilitary policemen and a government official — as insurgents kept up their campaign to derail Iraq's upcoming general election.

Wednesday's launch of the campaign for the Jan. 30 vote for a 275-member National Assembly was marred by an explosion near one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines in the southern city of Karbala (search).

The attack in the heartland of Iraqi's majority Shiite population killed eight people and wounded 40, including a prominent cleric, Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalayee (search). Local leaders said the attack was an attempt by militants to fuel a civil war between the Shiites and the minority Sunnis.

The start of election campaigning was subdued due to security fears.

In the capital, unidentified gunmen on Thursday shot dead Qassim Mehawi (search), deputy head of the Communications Ministry as he was heading to work, police officials said.

Eight of Mehawi's bodyguards were injured in the attack and were taken to the hospital.

Government officials are frequent targets of the insurgents, who accuse them of collaborating with the Americans.

In western Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near a passing SUV, badly damaging the vehicle, police said. After the blast, gunmen opened up on the survivors with automatic fire, killing a foreigner and wounding two others, Al-Khadra police commissioner Ali Hussein Al-Hamadani said.

There was no immediate information on their nationality.

Al-Hamadani said three Iraqi National Guardsmen died and six others were injured when another roadside bomb exploded in western Baghdad as their pickup truck was driving by.

And a U.S. soldier was wounded when the tank he was riding in struck a mine near Beiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, a spokesman said Thursday.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces raided the Baghdad home of two Egyptian employees of an Iraqi mobile phone company belonging to Egypt's telecommunications giant Orascom, said Dina Abu Neda, a spokeswoman for Orascom Telecom.

Abu Neda said the U.S. and Iraqi forces also confiscated thousands of dollars from the men's home. "We don't know why they were detained, it came as a big surprise to us," Abu Neda said.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, several thousand Arab residents rallied Thursday in front of the governor's office to demand that the elections be postponed.

The protesters said they were worried that a campaign to return displaced Kurds to the city, where Saddam Hussein's regime drove out many Kurds and replaced them with Arabs from other areas, would alter Kirkuk's ethnic mix.

A government official said that Saddam Hussein's notorious right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), known as "Chemical Ali," will be the first among 12 former regime members to appear at an initial investigative court hearing next week to face charges for crimes allegedly committed during Saddam's 35-year dictatorship.

On the final day of candidate registration on Wednesday, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), a secular Shiite and Washington favorite, announced his 240-member list of candidates, pitting him against the slate embraced by Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search). About 90 parties and political movements have applied to be represented on ballots.

Heading the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance list is Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and chief of its armed wing, the Iran-based Badr Brigade, during Saddam's rule.

With the threatened Sunni boycott, the lists submitted make Allawi and al-Hakim the leading contenders to take top jobs in Iraq's next government.

In the election, each faction will win a number of seats in the assembly proportional to the percentage of votes it gets nationwide — meaning the highest-listed candidates on each roster are most likely to be elected. The groups ending up strongest in the assembly will be in a powerful position — the body will elect a president and two deputies, who will nominate the prime minister. The assembly will also draw up a new constitution.

Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population and are expected to dominate the polls.

In another development, the Italian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it is investigating a report that an Italian citizen was killed in Iraq after being taken captive by a militant group.

In a statement, the Italian Foreign Ministry said the report was unconfirmed and that it "must still be verified with maximum caution."

The ministry said the details were provided by an Iraqi journalist, who told The Associated Press he was taken by militants to see a body near the battleground city of Ramadi. The journalist said he was shown a man's body and passport.

The ministry statement said the victim may have been Salvatore Santoro, 52, a resident of Britain for years. However, it said Italian officials were not aware he was in Iraq.

At the Pentagon, a senior U.S. commander said Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) may now be operating out of Baghdad, after leaving his former safe haven in the rebel-held city of Fallujah ahead of last month's U.S.-led offensive to retake that city.

"Baghdad would be the most likely area," Lt. Gen. Lance Smith told journalists on Wednesday.

Al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) group is believed to be leading a brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that victimize both Americans and Iraqis.

Smith said it was difficult to trace al-Zarqawi but that he can operate "pretty safely" in Baghdad.