- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

BAGHDAD — Terrorists attempting to derail this month’s elections killed at least 22 members of the Iraqi national guard in a suicide bombing outside a U.S. military base near the Sunni Triangle city of Balad yesterday.

A few hours later, attackers gunned down three Iraqi policemen and a local political leader near Samarra, another Sunni town, in a continuing campaign against any Iraqis who cooperate with U.S. forces.

The killings, apparently aimed at prompting defections from the newly trained security forces, have raised serious doubts about whether Iraqi police and guardsmen will be able to protect voters during the Jan. 30 election.

“This is not a good situation,” said Lt. Col. Haydar Rasool, an Iraqi national guard battalion commander in Baghdad. “If someone doesn’t want to participate in the Iraqi elections, he should not participate. Why kill us?”

News agencies reported that two men in an explosives-packed vehicle veered into a bus carrying members of Iraq’s 203rd national guard battalion.

U.S. officials said 18 guardsmen and the civilian driver of the bus were killed immediately and four guardsmen died later of wounds. A national guard spokesman said 25 guardsmen were killed.

It was the deadliest attack on Iraqi security forces since attackers gunned down about 50 new national guardsmen at a fake checkpoint in October.

Relatives of the victims wept at a local mosque, according to Reuters news agency. “My son, my son,” one man was quoted as saying as he clutched a coffin.

Violence against the security forces has been relentless. On Saturday, assassins killed a police major outside his home in Baghdad.

A videotape surfaced over the weekend in which masked men claiming ties to al Qaeda executed five members of the Iraqi security officials in broad daylight on a street in the Sunni town of Ramadi, pumping rounds of bullets into their lifeless bodies.

“To the families of civil defense forces, the national guard and the police: We tell you to say your final good-byes to your sons before you send them to us,” a masked militant says in the video. “Our reward to your sons is slaughter.”

Authorities are counting on the Iraqi police and national guard to play a key role in protecting voters at polling stations during historic parliamentary elections, scheduled to be held in 27 days.

The elections are expected to reshape the country’s political topography. Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under the regime of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein as well as the British-installed monarchy of the 1920s and earlier during the Ottoman Empire.

Now, the majority Shi’ites and powerful Kurds are poised to take control while the Sunnis — many of whom may avoid the polls because of violence — will likely be reduced to a minor role.

Insurgents and terrorists, drawn from disaffected members of the Sunni minority, former members of Saddam’s security apparatus and religious extremists from other Arab countries, have made a determined effort to sabotage the vote.

Americans and interim government officials have vowed that the elections will go forward. But Iraqi voters say they have little faith in security forces that are barely able to defend themselves.

Baghdad streets have all but emptied in the past few days, with Iraqis dreading a further escalation of violence in the weeks preceding the election.

Some Iraqis are contemptuous of the national guard, created by the United States to provide domestic security and “force protection” for American soldiers.

The force is called “haras al watani” in Arabic, but Iraqis have snidely taken to calling it “haras al-wathani,” which means “guardians of the pagans.”

Conceding that Iraqi security forces were not able to handle the insurgency, President Bush recently agreed to boost U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 150,000, more than during the 2003 invasion.

A once-dedicated Iraqi national guard commander, who six months ago proudly gave Western journalists tours of his base, said yesterday he was losing faith in his own men.

“All the people in the [Iraqi national guard] are coming in to work just to receive salaries,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Half of them are working with the resistance.”

A Dec. 23 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington laid the blame for the security forces’ failures at the feet of the Americans, who “emphasized quantity over quality to the point where unprepared Iraqis were sent out to die.”

New recruits, the report said, have “a limited incentive to fight or take high risks, and this is almost inevitable where the proper leadership, facilities, equipment, training and reinforcement capabilities are lacking.”

The interim government’s response to growing worries about the security forces has been mostly cosmetic. Minister of Defense Hazam al-Shaalan recently announced plans to merge the 40,000-strong national guard, created by U.S. officials to provide domestic security, into the Iraqi army as of Jan. 6.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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