Mortar barrage rocks Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A barrage of mortar fire Thursday ended a brief period of relative calm in Baghdad, killing at least one civilian and wounding more than a dozen, while insurgents continued a ruthlessly efficient campaign against Iraqi police forces and politicians cooperating with the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Explosions from mortar rounds that arced into the city center from a stretch of farmland to the south rattled windows for miles, burned buildings and sent Iraqis running for cover. The attacks marked the most intense insurgent activity in Baghdad since a wave of violence two weeks ago after U.S. and Iraqi troops raided the Abu Hanifa mosque, a revered Sunni shrine.

Mortar rounds struck the office of the Iraqna cellphone company, sending black smoke into the clear winter sky, and smashed into an electronics laboratory, parking lot and courtyard at the University of Technology.

There are no military installations near the campus in the bustling middle-class neighborhood of Karada, leading some witnesses to suggest a link between the attack and recent warnings that the school should not permit men and women to study together.

A nearby girls’ high school that was damaged in the attack serves as an information center to help Iraqis register for the scheduled January elections. Some Iraqi Sunni leaders have demanded the elections be delayed until violence subsides.

“I had been worried ever since they chose this school to help the elections,” said Suad Saleem, 28, a teacher at the girls’ school. “Even if the technical college was the target, there are only students there. They just want the students to stop going to school.”

U.S. officials have predicted an increase in insurgent activity in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 30 election of a 275-member National Assembly – the first national vote since Saddam Hussein’s fall.

A U.S. soldier was killed Thursday on patrol in the northern city of Mosul, military officials reported.

The January elections would be the first of three planned for Iraq next year, culminating in the selection of the country’s first elected postwar government in December 2005.

But some leaders of Iraq’s Sunni minority have said the insurgent activity concentrated in Sunni-dominated regions makes voting there impossible. More than a dozen Sunni parties have threatened a boycott unless the elections are delayed, a request rejected Thursday by President Bush and previously by leaders of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, which was battered by Saddam’s Sunni-led government.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who led a bipartisan delegation of four U.S. senators on a one-day visit to Iraq, said Thursday that January’s elections were “critical for the future of a free, democratic Iraq.”

“They will be imperfect,” Hagel said. “We hope elections here will include all the individuals, parties, groups that wish to participate in the elections. That’s what gives democracy credibility, that people participate.”

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