Suicide bombers defy tightened security to kill 26 people in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

Insurgents unleashed a wave of car bombings across the Iraqi capital yesterday, killing at least 26 people despite stepped-up US and Iraqi measures to protect this month's national election.

Insurgents unleashed a wave of car bombings across the Iraqi capital yesterday, killing at least 26 people despite stepped-up US and Iraqi measures to protect this month's national election.

The Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for several attacks as Iraqis prepared for a long Islamic holiday weekend that begins today. In just 90 minutes, Baghdad was hit by four deadly suicide bombings. But officials of the US-backed interim government urged potential voters to fulfil their "civic duty" by taking part in the elections on 30 January.

John Negroponte, the senior American official in Iraq, said the milestone of elections would be worth the price paid in lives lost. "I don't think anybody argued that this would be easy," he said.

The mayhem began at 7 am with a car bomb at the checkpoint of a small military base operated by Australian forces near their embassy. The blast, the first car bomb in the city in more than a week, shook much of the capital and killed at least two Iraqis. Journalists in a nearby hotel rushed to the scene and broadcast images of US soldiers standing near the burning car.

Zarqawi's group posted a statement on the internet, saying one of his group's "lions" had committed a "martyrdom operation" near the embassy. More explosions followed with a car bomb at a hospital half an hour later, another at a police checkpoint at 8:15 am, one near an airport turned into Iraqi National Guard base 15 minutes later. A fifth car bomb detonated on Baghdad's volatile Haifa Street, an insurgent stronghold. Reports of more bombings came from Babil province in the south and Mosul in the north.

Two roadside bomb explosions targeted Kurdish officials in Dohuk and Arbil. Both cities are within Iraq's pro-American, Kurdish-controlled provinces, which have been seen as a relatively safe.

A British security worker and an Iraqi colleague were killed when insurgents attacked their convoy near a power station they were protecting south of the central Iraqi city of Beiji. Their identities were not revealed. A third man, a foreign national, was missing.

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority prospered under Saddam Hussein and now opposes the elections, which are favoured by the Shia and Kurds. Former army officers as well as devout Islamic warriors are believed to be behind the insurgency. A campaign of intimidation and threats as well as sympathy for the resistance has convinced many Sunnis not to vote.

Mr Negroponte said Sunnis could still shape Iraq even without adequate representation in the parliament. "Those who don't participate now will have ample opportunity to do so in the future," he said. "They can still find a role."

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