String of blasts hit Baghdad

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A truck exploded near the Australian Embassy in central Baghdad today, killing two people and wounding four, police and witnesses said.

A wave of car bombings shook Baghdad today as rebels stepped up their offensive to block the 30 January national election. Other attacks were reported north and south of the capital, but the UN election chief said only a sustained onslaught could stop the ballot.

US military officials put the death toll from the day's violence at 26, based on initial field reports. Iraqi authorities said 10 people were killed - one in a drive-by shooting on a political party office and the others in the bombings.

The violence began about 7 a.m., when a bomb packed into a truck exploded outside the Australian Embassy in Baghdad, killing two people. Two Australian soldiers were injured.

A half hour later, another car bomb killed six at a police station located next to a hospital in eastern Baghdad.

A third car bombing struck at the main gate to an Iraqi military garrison located at a disused airport in central Baghdad. The US military said two Iraqi army soldiers and two Iraqi civilians were killed in that attack.

The US military also said a car bomb detonated southwest of Baghdad International Airport, killing two Iraqi security guards.

Hours later, another car bomb went off in northern Baghdad around noon near a bank and a Shiite Muslim mosque. Police said one person was killed and one killed at that bombing.

Elsewhere in the capital, insurgents in a car fired on a Baghdad office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, killing one of its members and wounding another, PUK officials said.

Outside the capital, Maj. Gen. Wirya Maarouf, the dean of a police academy in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in the city of Irbil. One bystander was killed and another injured, said police Col. Tharwat AbdulKarim.

In the northern city of Dahuk, a roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of provincial Gov. Nejrivan Ahmed but he was not injured, AbdulKarim said.

An Iraqi police officer was killed Wednesday in another car bombing in the largely Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad, the Polish military said.

Fresh clashes erupted Wednesday between US troops and insurgents in the northern city of Mosul. A car bomb exploded beside a US convoy in the eastern part of the city, and two Iraqis were killed when American troops opened fire after the blast, witnesses said. There were no reported casualties among the Americans.

US and Iraqi officials had predicted a steady increase in violence in the run-up to the election, in which Iraqi voters will choose a National Assembly and provincial legislatures. Sunni Muslim insurgents have vowed to disrupt the ballot.

Also, in the city of Kirkuk, two human rights leaders were killed, officials said. Their bodies were found shot in the head and chest after being kidnapped Tuesday, police said.

Carlos Valenzuela, the chief UN election adviser in Iraq, said the intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail this month's balloting is "high and very serious."

But Valenzuela told reporters Tuesday that only a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers will prevent this month's national elections from going ahead.

US troops have stepped up raids across the country, arresting scores of suspected insurgents in hopes of aborting plans to disrupt the ballot.

On Wednesday, the US military acknowledged that its soldiers opened fire on a car as it approached their checkpoint, killing two civilians in the vehicle's front seat. Six children riding in the backseat were unhurt.

It wasn't clear from a military statement whether the two victims were the children's parents. "Military officials extend their condolences for this unfortunate incident," the statement said.