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21 Iraqi troops die in blast, as officials reassess election's impact

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A suicide bomber killed 21 Iraqi troops Tuesday and wounded 27 at an army recruiting station in Baghdad, the U.S. military said, scattering body parts across the pavement and shaking the post-election confidence of the nation's capital.

Saleh Sarhan, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said the attack had a simple design: "A man walked in with a suicide belt, and he exploded himself."

In a separate incident Tuesday, gunmen ambushed a Jeep Cherokee in an apparent effort to kill a controversial Iraqi politician, Mithal al-Alusi, who's called for peace with Israel. Al-Alusi wasn't in the vehicle but two of his sons and a bodyguard were, all of whom died in the hail of AK-47 bullets in front of a girls' high school.

The explosion brought Iraqi deaths from insurgent attacks in a 48-hour period to about 50, and rattled the sense of well-being that came after national elections Jan. 30. Many Iraqis had hoped that the enthusiastic election turnout would blunt the insurgency.

But with violence having picked up again, U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to puzzle out whether the voting had any significant effect.

Insurgent attacks on the American military hit a one-day record of 260 on election day. A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that attacks had fallen in the days after the election, although specific figures haven't been released.

The number of American service members killed in the week after the election—nine—was lower than that of the week prior—13—according to the U.S. Central Command, the division of the military that's responsible for the Middle East. If sustained at nine a week, the death toll would mark a significant reduction from the level of American casualties in recent months. U.S. officials were uncertain whether the lower death count was the start of a new trend or merely a lull of the sort seen frequently in the past.

Nabil Salman, a professor at Baghdad University who's studied insurgent trends, thinks insurgent attacks will stay high as long as American troops remain in the country. "The results of the elections will not change a lot about this resistance unless there is a key change in the policy of our government regarding the occupying forces in Iraq," he said.

None of the leading political tickets is presently calling for a scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops.

It's also possible that insurgents are continuing to shift their attacks to Iraqi targets, including security forces and possibly Shiite Muslims, to the extent that the insurgency is made up of anti-Shiites from the Sunni Muslim minority.

While most agree that the elections brought out a surprising number of voters given the level of violence in Iraq—at least 65 people were killed that day, including insurgents—the low turnout in the Sunni community could portend stronger support for the insurgency, which is mainly Sunni.

Sunnis appear to have been outvoted by Shiites even in parts of the country that Sunnis dominate politically. For example, in the Sunni-controlled province of Salah al Din, home to former dictator Saddam Hussein, a ticket led by Shiite clerics captured more votes than any other group, according to results gathered from 80 percent of the polling stations.

In Baghdad, a city with massive Sunni enclaves, popular Sunni interim President Ghazi al-Yawer's slate got just 12,836 votes, while the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance ticket gathered 610,014 with 45 percent of polling centers reporting.

There were alleged irregularities and closed polling stations elsewhere in Sunni parts of the country.

Should the final tally show that Sunnis stayed home, Iraqi and American officials worry, many Sunnis may see the new government as illegitimate.

In spite of these concerns, there's still enthusiasm about the elections on the streets of Baghdad.

"We'll have a new and strong government which will take care of the security of the country and the security of the people," said Ali Faleh, a 20-year-old street vendor who was selling cigarettes to passers-by.

Iraqi government officials are pointing to an increased level of citizens' tips about insurgents as a sign that the enemy is weakened. While that could be a positive sign, American officials also reported an increase in intelligence tips after Saddam was captured in December 2003 and after the return of sovereignty to Iraqis in June 2004. However, the months after both events included large-scale insurgent attacks.

Sarhan, of the Defense Ministry, said that while the violence had continued he hoped that the elections, and a National Assembly to follow, would prompt the insurgents to shift from military to political operations.

"Most of the armed groups will have to change their strategy because they'll try to join the political operation and be part of the Iraqi society," he said.

Looming on the horizon is the Shiite holiday of Ashura on Feb. 19, which includes pilgrims walking to the southern city of Karbala. Attacks during Ashura last year killed more than 140 people on a single day.

Iraqi security forces are ramping up to prevent such attacks this year out of fears that on the heels of a major Shiite victory at the polls a large-scale attack could spark sectarian clashes.

Still, some aren't concerned. Asked about the threats of sectarian tension and a lingering insurgency, Nadir Hassan, a 37-year-old policeman in Baghdad, said he wasn't worried.

The rotund Hassan, standing in the middle of the street under a traffic light, smiled in the sun.

"The number of these criminals is decreasing day by day and they will soon be a drop in the sea," he said.

Hassan didn't wear a ski mask to hide his face from insurgents, who might retaliate against his family. Many other police officers in Baghdad do.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Yasser al Salihee contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

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