22 Iraqi guardsmen killed in suicide attack in Balad

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A car bombing killed at least 22 members of the Iraqi National Guard yesterday, among the highest death tolls in months for Iraqi security forces under siege from guerrilla fighters.

The suicide attack occurred in Balad, a mostly Shiite Muslim city north of Baghdad in an area heavy with Sunni insurgent activity. A civilian passer-by was killed and a half-dozen guardsmen were wounded, the U.S. military said. Iraqi officials put the death toll as high as 29.

Insurgents calling for the ouster of foreign troops and the overthrow of the U.S.-installed interim government have stepped up their attacks on Iraqi soldiers and police in recent months. The aim, U.S. military officials say, is to intimidate Iraqis and disrupt national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. Another goal is to gut the Iraqi security forces before they can train and arm themselves to effectively challenge the insurgents.

Since September, more than 1,000 members of the Iraqi army, police and National Guard have been killed. In October, insurgents gunned down about 50 new national guardsmen at a fake checkpoint. U.S. officials predict increasing violence in the weeks ahead.

"We're going to see this terrible kind of attack take place even more as we get closer to the election," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who appeared yesterday on television talk shows. "The people conducting these attacks don't want to see an election."

At least two other attacks yesterday targeted Iraqi forces.

Four police officers were killed and another wounded when insurgents ambushed their car in Samarra, a mostly Sunni city between Mosul and Baghdad. Gunmen also shot and killed the police chief in the southern town of Jebala.

Insurgent groups, some of them Muslim fundamentalists such as al-Qaida in Iraq and the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, have deemed the elections un-Islamic. They vow to target anyone who participates.

Sunni religious and political leaders have called for the elections to be postponed, saying that until security can be established, there is little chance of free and fair vote.

Iraq's largest Sunni political party withdrew from the voting last month.

Sunni Muslims, who make up about 20 percent of the population, fear they will be underrepresented at the polls. They worry that Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population, will vote overwhelmingly for a list of candidates supported by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Leaders of that coalition called a news conference yesterday to urge Iraq's Sunnis to vote. They also sought to dispel concerns that leading Shiite politicians are beholden to Iran, The New York Times reported.

"Our group believes in sharing power with all Iraqi factions," said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and survived an assassination attempt last month in Baghdad. "We have rejected the idea of a sectarian regime, and we believe that Iraq is for all Iraqis."

A driver and passenger carried out the Balad attack by ramming a bus packed with Iraqi National Guard troops, the U.S. military said.

The attack came the day after al-Qaida in Iraq, the militant group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, posted a video clip on the Internet showing the executions of five Iraqi security officers.

"To the families of civil defense forces, the National Guard and the police, we tell you to say your final good-byes to your sons before you send them to us," a masked militant said in the video. "Our reward to your sons is slaughter."

In focusing attacks on Iraqi soldiers and police, the insurgents have made a tactical and strategic move. Iraqis are much easier targets than Americans. They drive pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles equipped at best with token armor. They lack the firepower of the Americans. And what weaponry they have they do not use well.

In the longer term, the killings are a powerful form of intimidation. They make Iraqis rethink working with the interim government or the Americans.

At the same time, the daily bloodshed chips away at the credibility of the government: If the Iraqi police and soldiers cannot protect themselves, how can Iraqis count on them to protect citizens?

That is a crucial question with elections less than month away.

American officials say the elections, including security, will be an Iraqi effort. Though U.S. forces are working now to safeguard polling places and other sites, they are not expected to stand guard on Election Day.

The guerrilla attacks have hit hardest in Mosul, about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. Scores of police and Iraqi soldiers were killed in attacks in November and December, leading to mass resignations from the force.

Yesterday, military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said two brigade-size units, consisting of Iraqi forces and elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, were deployed to augment the 8,000 troops in Mosul. Brigades can include 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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