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Number of Iraqis killed jumps as election nears

By HAMID AHMED (AP)


March 1, 2010

BAGHDAD Ś The number of Iraqis killed in war-related violence increased by 44 percent between January and February, according to a count by The Associated Press, with civilians accounting for almost all of the casualties.

The rise in killings raised doubts about the atmosphere before next Sunday's Iraqi election, which the U.S. hopes will produce a stable government that could ease withdrawal of American troops by the end of next year.

Casualty figures have fluctuated widely in recent months and are far below those seen in past years, when sectarian violence was at its height. But the rise in killings is reflected in numbers collected both by the AP and by Iraqi authorities.

At least 255 Iraqis were killed in war-related violence in February, according to an AP count, 44 percent more than the 177 reported in January. At least 383 Iraqis were killed in December and 93 in November, reflecting no clear trend.

The AP statistics also show that more violence was directed at civilians than at security personnel in February, compared to the previous three months. Ninety-three percent of those killed in February were civilians, compared to about two-thirds in November, December and January.

Figures provided by Iraqi authorities reflect more killings but a similar increase. At least 352 Iraqis were killed in February, up 41 percent from the 250 recorded in January, according statistics obtained by the Iraqi Health, Defense and Interior ministries. According to the Iraqi numbers, about 85 percent of those killed in February were civilians, as opposed to 54 percent in January.

Also on Monday, Ad Melkert, the United Nations Special Representative in Iraq, expressed concern about attacks on Christian and minority candidates in the run-up to election day. On Sunday, Christians in the capital and in the northern city of Mosul rallied against attacks on Christians and called for government protection.

Insurgents have often targeted Christians in Iraq and particularly in Mosul, considered the last stronghold of the insurgency. Last week the Iraqi government promised to provide extra security to Christians there.

Melkert also said the ban on hundreds of candidates who allegedly had ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which used to rule the country, could affect the vote's legitimacy. Many Sunnis consider the ban an attempt to sideline their candidates.

But Melkert said he was encouraged that no political groups had announced plans to boycott the vote, and said "state of the art measures" had been implemented to prevent fraud in Sunday's vote.

"These must really be the elections for the future of Iraq by the Iraqi people," he said. "We are cautiously optimistic that the IHEC (Independent High Electoral Commission) will be able to successfully organize free election events this week."

In the southern city of Basra on Monday, the political party of Iraq's prime minister accused a rival of breaking campaign rules by circulating flyers bearing the likeness of the country's top Shiite cleric.

Spokesman Khalid Shanshal of the Dawa party in the southern city of Basra said the Iraqi National Alliance printed millions of flyers claiming that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supports its candidates.

Al-Sistani is highly revered by Iraq's Shiite majority, but he has refused to endorse candidates.

Ammar Muthana of the local electoral commission said using religious figures, mosques and holy sites in campaign materials is against the rules.

The Iraqi National Alliance is one of the most popular Shiite political blocs and believed to have strong ties to Iran. Officials from the bloc could not immediately be reached for comment.

>____

AP's News Research Center in New York and Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard and Rebecca Santana in Baghdad contributed reporting.





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