Iraqi leader says voters’ boycott will be limited

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s interim prime minister said Monday he’s confident only a small number of people will boycott the Jan. 30 elections despite anger among many Sunni Muslims over the Fallujah offensive and a deadly U.S.-Iraqi raid on a Baghdad mosque.

“The forces of darkness and terrorism will not benefit from this democratic experience and will fight it,” Ayad Allawi told The Associated Press. “But we are determined that this experiment succeeds.”

Allawi spoke as violence raged in the capital and other cities, and the U.S. Embassy said a bomb was discovered Monday on a commercial flight inside Iraq. Gunmen in the north assassinated a prominent election opponent, and five decapitated bodies were discovered south of the capital.

Despite the violence, the Iraqi government Sunday set Jan. 30 as the date for parliamentary elections, the first since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Officials said the balloting would be held even in areas still plagued by insurgency and despite calls by militant Sunni clerics for a boycott.

However, Allawi, a secular Shiite hand-picked by the Americans in June, said he believed that only “a very small minority” would abstain during the election “for one reason or another.”

Allawi is expected to run for a seat in the assembly, which would then choose the government.

As the election approaches, U.S. commanders in Iraq probably will expand their troops by several thousand. Army units slated to depart are also being held back until after the election. There now are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

U.S. officials are concerned that a boycott could deprive the new government of legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni Arabs, who make up an estimated 20 percent of the nearly 26 million population. The majority Shiites, believed to form 60 percent of the population, strongly support elections.

Spearheading the boycott call is the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni clerical group with suspected links to insurgent groups. The association called for a boycott to protest this month’s U.S.-led assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and the continued U.S. military presence five months after the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.

Allegations by Fallujah residents that U.S. troops defaced mosques and the large-scale devastation of the city have further stoked the anger of Sunnis, who were further enraged Friday when Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops raided Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa mosque, Iraq’s most revered Sunni site.

Witnesses said three worshippers were shot dead and at least 40 others were detained in the raid. Allawi has ordered an investigation.

On Monday, an Iraqi Red Crescent convoy carried blankets, water and first-aid kits into Fallujah, the first time an independent organization has been able to visit the city since U.S.-led forces invaded two weeks ago.

U.S. military deaths

The latest identifications reported by the U.S. military of personnel recently killed in Iraq:

Marine Cpl. Bradley T. Arms, 20, Charlottesville, Va.; died Friday in Anbar province, Iraq; assigned to the Marine Corps Reserve’s 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Baltimore, Md.

Marine Lance Cpl. Demarkus D. Brown, 22, Martinsville, Va.; died Friday in Anbar Province, Iraq; assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Army Sgt. Jack Bryant Jr., 23, Dale City, Va., died in an attack Saturday in Muqdadiyah, Iraq; assigned to 3rd Brigade Fire Support Team, 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Vilseck, Germany.

Marine Lance Cpl. Michael A. Downey, 21, Phoenix; died Friday at National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., from wounds received Nov. 11 in Anbar province, Iraq; assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Hawaii.

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