Iraqi Elections Set as Crackdown Continues

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Gunmen on Monday assassinated a member of an influential Sunni clerics' group that has called for a boycott of national elections, just a day after Iraqi officials announced the balloting would be held Jan. 30 in spite of rising violence in Iraq.

Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi (search), a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars (search), was shot by gunmen at his home in northern Mosul — a sign of the continuing violence that wracks the country.

Iraq's first elections since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship are scheduled for Jan. 30, and Iraqi authorities said ballots will be cast even in volatile areas — including Fallujah, Mosul and other parts of the Sunni Triangle (search)

The vote for the 275-member National Assembly is seen as a major step toward building democracy after years of Saddam's tyranny.

The ongoing violence, which escalated this month with the U.S.-led offensive against Fallujah, has raised fears voting will be nearly impossible in insurgency-torn regions — or that Sunni Arabs angry at the U.S.-Iraqi crackdown will reject the election. If either takes place, it could undermine the vote's legitimacy.

Elsewhere Monday, a U.S. patrol that came under attack returned fire, killing two attackers, according to eyewitnesses. The insurgents launched the attack in Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. The U.S. military had no immediate confirmation.

The former police chief of the northern city of Mosul was arrested after allegations that his force allowed insurgents to take over police stations during this month's uprising, Deputy Gov. Khasro Gouran said Monday.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi (search) was arrested Sunday by Kurdish militia in northern Irbil, where he fled after he was fired in the wake of the uprising

Several loud explosions rocked central Baghdad on Monday, sending a giant cloud of black smoke over the capital. The blasts seemed to hit the eastern side of the Tigris River, where several deadly car bombs were detonated last week.

Meanwhile, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric condemned the U.S.-Iraqi raid on a Sunni mosque in Baghdad on Friday, an official from his office said Monday.

The official, who identified himself only as Sheik Besheer, said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the raid on the Abu Hanifa mosque through his spokesman in an interview with Al-Manar television, the station of the Iranian-backed militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

"The raid on Abu Hanifa mosque is unacceptable, and we denounce and condemn this action," spokesman Hamed al-Khafaf told Al-Manar. "Abu Hanifa mosque is a sacred place and a scientific university and they have to deal with it on this basis like other sacred places."

On Friday, Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. troops raided the mosque — one of the country's most important Sunni mosques — killing three and wounding five others. About 40 people were detained.

The Iraqi government has warned that Islamic clerics who incite violence will be considered as "participating in terrorism." Some already have been arrested, including members of the Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars.

Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, insisted that "no Iraqi province will be excluded because the law considers Iraq as one constituency, and therefore it is not legal to exclude any province."

To bolster Iraq's democracy, 19 creditor nations — including the United States, Japan, Russia and many in Europe — agreed Sunday to write off 80 percent of the $38.9 billion that Iraq owes them.

U.S. and Iraqi troops have been clearing the last of the resistance from Fallujah, the main rebel bastion stormed Nov. 8 in hopes of breaking the back of the insurgency before the election.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he believed the battle did "serious damage" to the insurgency.

In Fallujah, Marine Maj. Jim West said Sunday that U.S. troops have found nearly 20 "atrocity sites" where insurgents imprisoned, tortured and murdered hostages. West said troops found rooms containing knives and black hoods, "many of them blood-covered."

Marines from the 1st Marine Division shot and killed an insurgent Sunday who opened fire after pretending to be dead. The U.S. military is investigating a Nov. 13 incident in which an NBC videotape showed a Marine shooting a wounded man lying in a Fallujah mosque. Marines could be heard yelling that the man was pretending to be dead.

The storming of Fallujah has heightened tensions throughout Sunni Arab areas, triggering clashes in Mosul, Beiji, Samarra, Ramadi and elsewhere.

In Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, insurgents ambushed an Iraqi National Guard patrol, killing eight guardsmen and injuring 18 others, police said.

The clerical leadership of the country's Shiite community, believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people, has been clamoring for an election since the April 2003 collapse of the Saddam regime, and voting is expected to go smoothly in northern areas ruled by the Kurds, the most pro-American group.

However, Sunni Arabs, estimated at about 20 percent of the population, fear domination by the Shiites. Sunni clerics have called for a boycott of the vote because of the Fallujah attack.

During the January election, Iraqis will choose a National Assembly to draft a new constitution. If it's ratified, another election will be held in December 2005.

Voters in January also will select 18 provincial councils and in Kurdish-ruled areas a regional assembly.

A stable, legitimate government could enable the United States to begin drawing down its 138,000-strong military presence and gradually hand over security responsibility to Iraqis.

"Having elections in Iraq are very important, and having them on time is also so important for the Iraqi people to have more security in Iraq," said Salama al-Khafaji, a Shiite member of the interim Iraqi National Council, a government advisory body.

Ayar, the election commission spokesman, said 122 political parties were registered for the elections. The commission has asked the United Nations to send international monitors; 35 experts already have arrived.