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Iraq sets elections for Jan. 30, despite violence and calls for boycott

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's Electoral Commission announced Sunday that Iraq will hold national elections Jan. 30, despite heavy violence throughout much of the nation and dozens of political and religious parties threatening boycott.

If held, the elections could be the closest thing to a fully democratic national selection process since the British ceded rule to a series of Iraqi kings, who were followed by revolution and dictatorship.

The elections would select a 275-member national assembly that would draft a permanent constitution. Presidential election would follow by the end of 2005.

Commission chair Hussein Hendawi said 198 parties and individuals already had filed to run and that 126 had been approved.

"It was a very large number and we feel proud about that," he said.

But at least 46 Iraqi religious and political parties have announced that they will not participate in the electoral process, many of them because of fighting in Fallujah.

Among them are some Shiite Muslims, including firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has widespread support in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a slum of more than 2 million.

Iraqi officials have insisted that elections would be held by the end of January, in spite of violence in the country, and followers of Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani have suggested the country would risk widespread unrest in the elections weren't held by then.

But many leaders from the minority Sunni population have opposed the elections, saying they are being held too soon and have been structured in such a way that Sunnis, many of whom enjoyed privilege and power under Saddam Hussein, will be permanently disenfranchised.

Commission members said they planned to extend polling to even the most dangerous of Iraqi hotspots, including cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi to the west, and areas south of Baghdad, where carjackings and assassinations are common.

"The issue of security is left to the government, and that totally belongs to the government to decide which kind of forces they are use," said Safwat Rashid, a member of the commission. "We assume that Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard are enough to protect the polling stations."

Hendawi said international election observers would be welcomed, though it was unclear who would send them.

The announcement came even as scores of insurgents attacked a police station in Baghdad, pounding it with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire for hours before being driven off by U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

Violence also hit the city of Ramadi, where eight Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and 18 wounded in an insurgent ambush, and U.S. Marines fired on a minibus of civilians, killing at least three and wounding five. The Marines said the vehicle failed to stop at a checkpoint.

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(Jassim is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent in Iraq.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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