- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Two-thirds of registered Baghdad voters plan to turn out for the Jan. 30 elections in spite of continuing violence, which surged yesterday with the kidnapping of an archbishop in Mosul and mortar and bomb attacks in several cities.

The Vatican demanded the immediate release of Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, of the Syrian Catholic Church, saying, “The Holy See deplores in the firmest way such a terrorist act.”

Elsewhere, attackers killed at least 21 persons, most of them Iraqi policemen and soldiers. A suicide bomber struck at U.S. Marines in Ramadi, where terrorists beheaded two Shi’ite Muslims and left their bodies on a sidewalk.

The voter survey in the independent al-Mada newspaper, one of Iraq’s most respected dailies, was conducted last week in eight main districts of Baghdad.

Based on a sample of 300 respondents, it found that 67 percent of Baghdad voters planned to participate. Twenty-five percent said they would not take part, and the rest were undecided.

A high turnout in the city of 5 million to 6 million could raise the credibility of the voting, which will take place under the threat of suicide bombings and other attacks on polling stations.

“These figures are positive and indicate that Iraqis are undeterred by the threats,” a spokesman for Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission said.

Nevertheless, terrorists bent on sabotaging the election continued their grim work yesterday.

Witnesses said burned bodies were scattered in a police compound in Baiji after a car bomb killed at least seven policemen in the oil refining town north of Baghdad. At least 25 persons, mostly police, were wounded.

Near Baqouba, another guerrilla stronghold northeast of the capital, gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint, killing eight soldiers and wounding four, a national guard officer said.

Archbishop Casmoussa was kidnapped as he walked in front of the Al-Bishara church in the Muhandeseen neighborhood of Mosul, a northern Iraqi city that has become a hot spot of violent insurgency.

Gunmen forced him into a car and drove away, said a priest who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The reason for the kidnapping was not clear, but Christians — tens of thousands of whom live in and around Mosul — have been subjected to attacks in the past. Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.

A U.S. spokesman said Marines suffered an undisclosed number of casualties in a suicide car bombing in Ramadi. Marines sent to check a suspicious vehicle came under small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire and the vehicle exploded.

“There were U.S. casualties,” 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert said. He declined to give details, citing security.

Also in Ramadi, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city 70 miles west of Baghdad, officials found the bodies of five civilians and one Iraqi soldier. Each had a handwritten note declaring them to be collaborators, officials said.

Four found together had been shot. Two discovered later in the day were beheaded, their blood-soaked bodies left where they died. The notes identified the two beheaded victims as Shi’ites.

Polling stations came under fire in two other cities. A security guard was killed and guerrillas engaged U.S. troops protecting a school designated for voting.

Most of the attacks have occurred in majority Sunni areas of the country, where political leaders fear the violence will scare people away from the polls and skew results in favor of the Shi’ite majority.

The Baghdad newspaper poll found voters’ intentions influenced by religion, reflecting a trend expected across Iraq as Shi’ite leaders call on their followers to vote and Sunni Muslims urge a boycott or postponement.

Enthusiasm for elections was highest in Shi’ite areas of the capital, such as the poor Sadr City district, where 71 percent said they planned to vote.

A Shi’ite list blessed by Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, is expected to win a majority in the 275-member parliament, which will draft a constitution and choose a government.

In the mostly Sunni district of Athamiya — where Saddam Hussein made his final appearance before Baghdad fell to U.S. forces in April 2003 — only 24 percent were certain they would vote.

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