Two police stations are attacked in bid to scare Iraqi voters

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The Independent Online

Violence flared in Iraq's restless Sunni Triangle yesterday when insurgents stormed two police stations in a brazen attempt to intimidate Sunni voters a day after Osama bin Laden called for Iraqis to boycott upcoming elections.

In Tikrit, a town on the Tigris river near Saddam Hussein's birthplace, insurgents stormed a police station, dragging 12 men outside and shooting them before blowing up the police station. In Samarra, scene of a major United States attack on insurgents last summer, another police station was attacked, killing one officer, and injuring four.

In the capital, Baghdad, Iraqis numbed by the unending violence shrugged off Bin Laden's boycott call and the implicit threat that the elections would become an even greater target for international Islamic militants who advocate a holy war against the West and its allies.

"The jihadis already are part of Osama bin Laden's network and they already have their soldiers here," said Ahmad Barrak, a member of Iraq's 100-member provisional National Assembly. "They did very bad things to the Iraqi people. They will continue to do so. In the short term nothing can stop them."

The violence, escalating after a month of relative calm following the US offensive on the rebel stronghold of Fallujah, comes less than five weeks before Iraq's historic multi-party elections for a 275-seat parliament and a new government.

Iraq's Shia majority and pro-American Kurds generally look forward to the 30 January elections as the first step toward asserting their political muscle after decades under the thumb of Hussein and his Baath party loyalists, the bulk of whom were drawn from Sunni Arabs in the Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah areas.

Many resentful Sunni Arabs say they will stay away from the polls. The Muslim Scholars Association, a clerical group which has influence among Iraq's Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, has announced an election boycott. The Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni group, withdrew from the election on Monday. Sunni politicians continue calls to delay the elections until security conditions in Sunni parts of the country improve.

"There's some initiative to delay the elections, and we're discussing it with Shias and Kurds," said Saad Abdul Razzak, a member of Sunni leader Adnan Pachachi's Iraqi Independent Democrats list. "We want only to delay the elections. We're not considering withdrawing from it. Not yet, at least."

Changing the election date might turn out to be a legally and diplomatically complicated affair. Both Iraq's transitional administrative law and UN Security Council Resolution 1546 enshrine 31 January as the last date for elections.

A delay is also fraught with political risks. Shias look forward to the elections and do not want delays. "It's a free country," Hamid al-Kifaey, of the Democratic Society Movement, said after the launch of his party's campaign. "People can participate in elections if they like. If they don't like, that's their right. In the US maybe 40 per cent of the electorate goes to the polls."

Already campaign posters have begun to appear on walls, campaign workers have begun distributing leaflets and politicians are meeting and greeting constituents at universities, mosques and social events.

Though there is hardly any politicking in Sunni areas such as Ramadi and Mosul and it is muted in the capital, it is proceeding at a fever pitch in the Shia south, said Ibrahim al-Uloum, leader of the Gathering for the Future of Iraq, which is one of more than 100 entities running for parliamentary seats.

"We keep moving forward in our campaign," he said. "Car bombs won't stop us. Political violence won't stop us. What's important is that the majority of the people express themselves."

The transitional parliament which will be elected will not only form a new government but design a new constitution, which will be ratified in another nationwide vote by the end of 2005 for a new parliament.

British soldier found dead

By Marco Giannangeli

A British soldier has been found dead with a gunshot wound in Iraq, it was revealed last night.

Sergeant Paul Connolly was discovered at Shaibah Logistic Base, south west of Basra, on Sunday. It is not yet known whether his death was a suicide or accidental. Ministry of Defence officials said the shooting was being investigated but that "initial inquiries do not indicate hostile action or other suspicious circumstances".

The seasoned career soldier, who specialised as a master welder, had been sent to southern Iraq in October to help in the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure.

His death brings the total number of fatalities among UK service personnel to 75.

Sgt Connolly, 33, had served with the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers for 15 years, and was latterly attached to 21 Engineer Regiment of the Royal Engineers.

Sgt Connolly's family was said to be "in shock".