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At least 26 die in wave of insurgent attacks in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Insurgents set off at least four bombs in Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 26 people and wounding more than 20 in a continuing campaign to disrupt national parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on Jan. 30.

An organization linked to Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq, took credit for one of the blasts, a huge explosion outside the Australian Embassy that killed two Iraqi civilians and shattered windows at a nearby hotel housing several U.S. news organizations, including Knight Ridder.

No claims of responsibility were issued for the other explosions, the most serious of which went off near a police station and hospital, killing 18 and wounding 15.

U.S. military officials were quick to point out that the explosions didn't inflict nearly as much damage as they could have. All the bombers were stopped by security forces before they could reach their intended targets, Lt. Col. James Hutton of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad said in a statement.

"While any loss of life is tragic, it could have been a lot worse," the statement said.

Iraqis braced for more violence as the clock ticks down to the elections, which will select a 275-person national assembly that will pick new leadership for the country and write a constitution.

"An escalation of terrorist operations is expected as the elections approach," said Saleh Sarhan, a spokesman for the Iraqi ministry of defense. "These terrorists want to stop the election process and are betting on (violence). They are sick-minded people."

There was no word Wednesday on the whereabouts or health of eight Chinese workers who were kidnapped the day before and shown in a video, holding their passports for an insurgent's camera.

In Kirkuk, a city north of Baghdad with deep divides between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, the police reported that the chief of human rights had been assassinated along with a relative.

And a British security worker and an Iraqi colleague were killed in an ambush by Iraqi insurgents near the city of Beiji.

The Baghdad attacks came the day before Eid, a Muslim holiday commemorating the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.

The first explosion came near the Australian Embassy at about 7 a.m. It sheared off pieces of the building and destroyed windows for blocks, including at the hotel that houses reporters for NBC News and Knight Ridder. In addition to the Iraqi deaths, two Australian soldiers were wounded.

The blast near the police station and hospital came about a half hour later. The hospital was particularly hard hit.

"There were only small pieces left of the car. Five other cars near it were totally destroyed. Every window in the hospital was shattered; every door was blown off its hinges," said Ali Abdul Rahman, a doctor at Al Wasiti hospital.

He said blood covered the hospital floor as the dead and wounded were brought in.

A third boom occurred near the Baghdad airport, killing two Iraqi security guards and injuring three.

At about 8:30 a.m., a fourth explosion at an Iraqi military base killed four Iraqis—including two Iraqi soldiers—and wounded a U.S. soldier.

There were reports of a fifth bombing near a bank that killed at least one person, but there was no official confirmation from Iraqi or U.S. officials.

Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Iraq's largest Islamic sects, said they were weary of the violence but saw no end in sight.

Jafar Faleeh, 35, a Sunni grocer near the Australian Embassy bombing, said he sees no progress in curbing insurgent activity in Baghdad.

"The violence happened before the elections, it will happen during elections and it will happen after elections," he said. "They say the Sunnis are doing these things. There was a man named Sabah who died this morning, and he was Sunni. He died for no reason."

Asked about security in Baghdad, Ali Hussein, a Shiite construction worker, threw his arms in the air.

"Only God knows," he said. The bombing "is everywhere, every place and it is increasing. In Iraq, today is always better than tomorrow."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report, as did a second special correspondent not named for security reasons.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.