Pre-election raids

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgents stepped up their intimidation attacks across Iraq on Sunday two weeks before a crucial national election, ambushing a car carrying a prominent woman candidate, blasting polling centers and killing 17 in assaults on Iraqi police and others.

U.S. troops staged a series of raids in Mosul and other parts of northern and central Iraq, arresting dozens, in an effort to improve security before the balloting two weeks away.

But a top U.S. official conceded that American and Iraqi forces can’t stop the ‘extraordinary’ intimidation tactics. Many of the deadly attacks Sunday occurred in areas that officials call safe for elections. The crackle of small-arms fire reverberated through a busy neighborhood in the center of Baghdad, sending shoppers scurrying, in an afternoon attack that underscored the precarious security situation.

The woman candidate, Salama al-Khafaji, was ambushed in central Baghdad by gunmen wearing police uniforms, but escaped injury. It was the second attempt since May on the life of al-Khafaji, who is running on the slate endorsed by the country’s main Shiite cleric that is favored to win. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged that the security threat to the Jan. 30 election was worse than in last October’s balloting in Afghanistan and that it was impossible to guarantee ‘absolute security’.