Borders to be shut during Iraqi poll
Travel restrictions and curfews part of planned clampdown as 'ruthless campaign of terror' continues to take its toll

Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
Wednesday January 19, 2005
The Guardian

Iraqi security forces fought running battles with masked gunmen in central Baghdad yesterday as the government announced a security clampdown in advance of the elections on January 30.

In another day of violence, a suicide bomber struck in the early morning at the headquarters of a leading Shia party in Baghdad, killing at least two people.

Eight Chinese contractors were kidnapped and shown on Arabic television networks being held by militant gunmen.

The US military said three American soldiers had been killed in western Iraq on Monday. But a Catholic archbishop kidnapped in the northern city of Mosul on Monday was freed.

Insurgents have increased their attacks in the run-up to the elections, forcing the government to tighten security to protect the voters.

The election commission said Iraq's borders would be closed for three days over the election period, and it imposed driving restrictions which will prevent travel between provinces. Curfews are also to be imposed.

The insurgent threat is becoming ever more overt. Yesterday gunmen stormed a bank in Karrada, a popular shopping district in the centre of Baghdad, where national guardsmen were queuing for their monthly salaries.

For more than an hour they fought gun battles with the police in the streets as American Kiowa observation helicopters circled above them.

Further clashes were reported in Daura, another often violent district of the capital further to the south.

The suicide car bomb, which was detonated at 8.50am, was aimed at the offices of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia party which heads a strong Shia political coalition. At least two people were killed and nine injured.Witnesses said that the bomber tried to enter the compound in a white four-wheel drive vehicle, and detonated the explosives when he was turned back.

Kidnapping remains a seri ous problem. Yesterday's video footage showed the eight Chinese hostages huddled in front of a mud brick building. They showed their passports to the camera as two masked gunmen stood by their sides.

A group called the al-Numan Brigades said it had taken them because they were employed by a Chinese construction company working on American sites.

Another group released an Iraqi archbishop, Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, who had been kidnapped on Monday near his church in Mosul. The archbishop is from the Syrian Catholic church.

It was unclear why he had been released so quickly. The Vatican denied that a $200,000 (107,000) ransom had been paid.

A French journalist who is believed to have been kidnapped earlier this month is still missing.

US officials in Baghdad said the violence remained a serious hurdle but the election of a national assembly had to go ahead as planned.

"This ruthless campaign of terror and intimidation is taking its toll," the US ambassador, John Negroponte, told reporters yesterday.

He said it was important for Iraqi politicians after the vote to be "as inclusive as possible of all of Iraq's communities".

Many fear that the violence, which is most prevalent in Sunni areas, will deter Sunni voters and leave them under-represented in the government and in the drawing up of a constitution for Iraq.

The Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni, said he feared that a boycott of the elections would lead to civil war.

"Boycotting the elections will not produce a national assembly that represents the Iraqi people," he said.

If it happened, then Iraqis would "enter into a civil war that will divide the country", he added.

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