- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities set Jan. 30 as the date for the nation’s first election since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and pledged that voting would take place throughout the country despite rising violence and calls by Sunni clerics for a boycott.

Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said voting would push ahead even in areas still racked by violence, including Fallujah, Mosul and other parts of the volatile Sunni Triangle.

The vote for the 275-member national assembly is seen as a major step toward building democracy after decades of Saddam’s tyranny.

But the violence, which has escalated this month with the U.S.-led offensive against Fallujah, has raised fears that voting will be nearly impossible in insurgency-torn regions — or that Sunni Arabs, angry at the U.S.-Iraqi crackdown, will reject the election.

Mr. Ayar insisted, “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 agreed yesterday to write off 80 percent of the $42 billion that Iraq owes them.

President Bush congratulated the Iraqi interim government and the group of creditor nations for the agreement to dramatically reduce Iraq’s international debt.

“The Paris Club agreement represents a major international contribution to Iraq’s continued political and economic reconstruction. I encourage non-Paris Club creditor nations to agree to comparable debt reduction for Iraq,” he said.

The Paris Club is a group of 19 creditor nations that includes the United States, Japan, Russia and European nations.

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.

In Fallujah, Marine Maj. Jim West said U.S. troops have found nearly 20 “atrocity sites,” where terrorists imprisoned, tortured and killed hostages. Maj. West said troops found rooms containing knives and black hoods, “many of them blood-covered.”

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, police said.

U.S. forces conducted a raid to capture a “high-value target” associated with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi in Haqlaniyah, 135 miles northwest of the capital, a U.S. spokesman said. Six persons were detained, although the military did not say whether the target was among them.

South of Baghdad, a convoy of Iraqi national guardsmen and police officers came under attack by insurgents armed with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs in Latifiyah, the U.S. military said. There were several Iraqi casualties.

To the north, American soldiers in Mosul discovered two bodies, including one of an Iraqi soldier, near a site where the bodies of nine other Iraqi soldiers were found a day earlier, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings with Task Force Olympia.

The nine, all shot in the head execution-style, were identified as soldiers based at Kisik, 30 miles west of Mosul. Four decapitated bodies, still unidentified, were found in Mosul on Thursday.

In an Internet statement posted yesterday, Zarqawi’s terror group, al Qaeda in Iraq, said it killed 17 Iraqi national guardsmen from Kisik. The report couldn’t be independently verified. Col. Hastings said he had no report of missing Iraqi guardsmen.

Also yesterday, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office announced that his cousin, Ghazi Allawi, 75, has been released by his kidnappers, nearly two weeks after he was abducted with his wife and pregnant daughter-in-law. The prime minister’s office had no other details about his release.

The two women were released on Nov. 15. Their kidnappers, who identified themselves as the militant group Ansar al-Jihad, had threatened to behead them unless all Iraqi detainees were released and the siege of Fallujah was halted.

During the January election, Iraqis will choose a national assembly, which will draft a new constitution. If the constitution is ratified, another election will be held in December 2005.

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

“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 Shi’ite member of the interim Iraqi National Council, a government advisory body.

Mr. Ayar, the election commission spokesman, said 122 political parties out of 195 applicants were accepted and registered for the elections. The commission has asked the United Nations to send international monitors for the elections.

About 35 U.N. experts already have arrived, he said, adding, “We need as many monitors as possible.”

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