Mortar barrages kill one, wound several in central Baghdad |

Mortar barrages kill one, wound several in central Baghdad

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Mortar barrages hammered the heavily fortified Green Zone and elsewhere in central Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least one person and underscoring the vulnerability of even Iraq’s best-protected areas ahead of national elections.

Also Thursday, a car bomb exploded next to a Bradley fighting vehicle near Beiji, about 155 miles north of Baghdad, wounding two U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi National Guardsmen, said Master Sgt. Cynthia Weasner of the 1st Infantry Division. No other details were available.

President Bush insisted that crucial elections set for Jan. 30 must not be delayed, rejecting calls from more than a dozen political parties there to postpone them until security at the polls can be ensured.

“It’s time for Iraqi citizens to go to the polls,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday.

The Pentagon has said U.S. troop strength in Iraq will be raised from 138,000 to about 150,000 by mid-January – the highest level of the war – in order to provide security for the election.

The Iraqi Islamic party, a Sunni political group, said it would push forward with demands to postpone the elections and would hold a conference on Sunday in a bid to muster more support for the call.

“We’re trying to create a force to pressure the (electoral) commission and the government to postpone the elections,” party official Ammar Wajeeh said. “We will do our best and we will continue this process until the very end.”

“We are not convinced that elections could be held on this date so long as the security situation remains the way it is,” Wajeeh said.

The calls for delay also have been strongly opposed by Shiite politicians and the influential Shiite religious authority. Shiites comprise about 60 percent of Iraq’s nearly 26 million people and have been eagerly awaiting elections to transform their numbers into the political power they were deprived of under Saddam Hussein.

In Baghdad, at least five mortar rounds exploded Thursday, including two in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the compound that holds Iraq’s interim administration and foreign diplomatic missions.

One round struck near a mobile phone office in Baghdad’s Arasat neighborhood, killing one person and wounding three, police Lt. Muhsin Khazim said. Witnesses also said people were wounded in the other blasts around Baghdad, but the number of casualties wasn’t known.

Last week, a mortar attack killed four Nepalese employees of a British security firm and wounded at least 12 in the Green Zone.

In the northern city of Mosul, 10 insurgents were killed in a clash with Iraqi security forces, an Iraqi general said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Rasheed Feleih said two rebels were captured during the firefight, which flared overnight when a police special forces unit was conducting a sweep through the city’s troubled Islah neighborhood.

Mosul’s 5,000-member police force disintegrated during an insurgent uprising last month, forcing the U.S. command and the interim government to divert troops from their offensive in Fallujah.

In Baladruz, a town, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, attackers gunned down a police colonel as he walked through a market, according to a policeman there, Ahmed Hassan. Insurgents repeatedly have targeted Iraqi police, who are cooperating with U.S. forces.

The U.S. Embassy also banned its employees from using the highway linking Baghdad to the international airport, regarded as one of the country’s most dangerous roads.

“Until further notice, no mission personnel will be permitted to use the main road from the international (Green) zone to the Baghdad International Airport for security reasons,” a warden’s message said.

The 10-mile stretch of road has been the scene of repeated roadside bomb and suicide attacks generally targeting U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors working on reconstruction projects in Iraq.

Insurgents have steadily stepped up attacks in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, ahead of the scheduled elections.

The embassy statement also cautioned U.S. citizens in Iraq to review their security and warned those planning to travel to Iraq to consider whether such a trip was “absolutely necessary.”

On Monday, the British Foreign Office issued a similar warning ordering its staff from traveling on the airport road for security reasons.

The latest attack on the road occurred on Wednesday, when three people were injured after a car bomber detonated his vehicle as several SUVs, favored by U.S. and other Western security contractors, were passing by.

The U.S. military said a vehicle accident in western Baghdad on Wednesday killed one U.S. soldier and injured four. It was the first reported U.S. military death in Iraq for December, and brought the number of American deaths since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to 1,257, according to an Associated Press count.