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Threat of Election Violence Empties Streets of Baghdad
Published on Tuesday, January 25, 2005 by the Independent/UK
Threat of Election Violence Empties Streets of Baghdad
by Patrick Cockburn
 
So frightened were Iraqi policemen injured in a suicide bomb attack on the offices of the Prime Minister's party yesterday that even in hospital they clutched their sub-machine guns and refused to remove their black ski masks.

Baghdad is increasingly gripped by a mood of terror in the days leading up to the election on 30 January. There are fewer and fewer cars on the streets as people decide to stay at home. The better off have already left for Jordan, Syria and the Gulf.

At 8.30am yesterday a suicide bomber driving a Toyota tried to enter the heavily guarded Zaidoun Street which houses many government offices on the edge of the Green Zone. These include the headquarters of the Iraqi National Accord, the party of Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister.

The bomber did not get very far. He was stopped by heavily armed police commandos at a concrete barrier and blew himself up. "Going by the remains of his face that we found later, we think he was a non-Iraqi Arab, maybe a Sudanese or from the Gulf," said the detective investigating the case.

Compared to other suicide bombs the casualties were light - only nine security men and one civilian wounded. They were quickly removed to the Yarmouk hospital, but such is the fear among government security men that they will be identified that even in the hospital ward they refused to remove their black ski masks as they were treated by doctors.

"You mustn't take any photographs," shouted another masked policeman at two Iraqi press photographers as he stood, machine gun at the ready, blocking the doorway into the ward. A man in camouflage uniform hobbled past him using his Kalashnikov as a crutch. A third security man, his foot wrapped in a bandage, was carried by friends to a police van waiting outside.

The suicide bombing was claimed by a group,which says it owes allegiance to al-Qa'ida. On a website it said that "one of the young lions in the suicide regiment" carried out the attack against the office of Mr Allawi, "the agent of the Jews and the Christians".

The number of attacks in Baghdad over the weekend was no higher than normal but the government's announcement of stringent security measures is adding to a sense of paranoia. On the three days leading up to the election there will be a curfew on cars except those belonging to the security and election services as well as a few journalists.

This may prove counter-productive since gunmen will be able to shoot at any vehicle knowing that they are almost certain to hit somebody connected with the election.

In an effort to show that it is effectively combating suicide bombers, the government yesterday announced it had captured a man responsible for 75 per cent of the attacks. His name is Sami Mohammed al-Jafi, known as Abu Omar al-Kurdi, whom the government says was behind 32 car bombs, most though not all driven by suicide drivers.

"Kurdi has confessed to 75 per cent of the car bombs that were used in Baghdad since March 2003 and to making the explosives used in the attack on the Jordanian embassy in August 2003," said a spokesman for Mr Allawi.

Mr Kurdi was arrested two weeks ago yet the announcement comes suspiciously close to the election. The Iraqi security services have long experience in extracting confessions to suit the political purposes of governments they serve.

The arrest is unlikely to reassure Iraqis driving on the roads of Baghdad, which remain the most dangerous in the world. Iraqi security men shot dead a man at the wheel of his car at the weekend outside the hotel where The Independent has its office. He apparently did not hear their order to stop.

The hotel also bears the mark of a suicide bomb last week, which even the government does not claim as the work of Mr Kurdi since he was already under arrest. The suicide bomber was aiming at the nearby Australian embassy but the blast killed two passers-by and blew out the windows on one side of the hotel.

The Bush administration will seek about US$80bn (42.5bn) in new funding for military operations this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing the total for both conflicts to almost $300bn so far. Funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will total nearly $105bn in 2005 alone - a record amount that shatters initial estimates of the cost.

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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