- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Insurgents attacked a police station south of Baghdad under cover of darkness last night, killing 22 Iraqi police officers and troops in a one-hour pitched battle, the biggest since national elections eight days ago, police said.

Fourteen attackers also died in the clash, which broke out about 10:30 p.m. in Mahawil, 50 miles south of Baghdad, police Capt. Muthana Khalid Ali told the Associated Press.

Two Iraqi national guardsmen were killed and three more were injured in a rebel ambush in the same area earlier yesterday as anti-government rebels turned up the level of violence after a brief pause following last week’s elections.

On the political front, the U.N. envoy to Iraq hailed the election as “unexpectedly successful” and said there were strong signs that all parties will participate in creating a new constitution, even if they are not included in the new government.

Capt. Ali, the police spokesman, said dozens of gunmen arrived in pickup trucks under cover of darkness to attack the police station, which was in a mixed area of Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

Five Iraqi national guardsmen and 17 police were killed and 18 security personnel were wounded in the battle, he said, adding that the attackers used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades before withdrawing under fire.

Gunmen seized four Egyptian engineers in Baghdad earlier yesterday, two days after the brazen kidnapping of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

The Egyptians were seized as they left for work from their house in the west of Baghdad. All are employed by a unit of the Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom, which has several contracts in Iraq, including one to run Iraqi cell phone operator Iraqna.

Elsewhere, one U.S. soldier from Task Force Baghdad was killed and two others were wounded in a roadside bombing north of the capital, the U.S. command said. No further details were released.

The attacks raise new concerns about security after a brief downturn in violence after the Jan. 30 elections, when Iraqis chose a National Assembly in the first nationwide balloting since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

A final tally is expected by Thursday, but initial returns point to a landslide for Shi’ite candidates endorsed by their clerics. Shi’ites are thought to make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.

Many Sunni Arabs, estimated at 20 percent of the population and the core of the insurgency, are thought to have stayed home, either out of fear of rebel reprisal or because of a boycott called by Sunni clerics.

Several hundred people protested yesterday in Baghdad to complain that security precautions had prevented tens of thousands from voting near Mosul, in an area inhabited by Sunnis, Christians and Turkmen.

Nevertheless, U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi told Reuters news agency at his fortified compound inside Baghdad’s green zone yesterday that the elections “have been unexpectedly successful and very, very good.”

“It doesn’t mean that everyone has participated equally, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for more inclusiveness,” said Mr. Qazi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “But [the vote] has brought about an ambience in which there is a greater disposition to talk to one another.”

In the months before the vote and in the week since, Mr. Qazi has been involved in intense discussions with Iraqis from across the political spectrum, first urging their participation in the election and now in the postelectoral process.

Many Sunni Arab parties and organizations boycotted the vote, saying it wasn’t acceptable as long as U.S. troops remained on Iraqi soil and violence was tearing largely Sunni areas of the country apart.

Since the elections, however, some of the groups have moderated their positions, realizing that it benefits them to be involved in a process embraced by a large proportion of Iraqis.

Others, such as the Muslim Clerics’ Association, a group of traditional Sunni scholars, remain opposed to any government formed on the basis of the elections, which are widely expected to have been won by a coalition led by religious Shi’ites.

But even factions like the clerics’ association are showing a desire to be involved in writing the constitution, a crucial next step in the transition to democracy and probably the most important task facing the next government.

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