'Free societies will be their doom'

Six Iraqi police officers were killed in a car bomb blast in ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Tuesday, the latest deadly strike against security forces with elections less than three weeks away.

United States President George Bush, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, said he is working to ensure the elections go forward as planned on January 30, but warned the vote is only a “first step” towards a permanent government.

Tuesday’s bombing against the police came a day after Baghdad’s deputy police chief was assassinated, one of a rash of attacks that left more than a dozen people dead on Monday.

The US military said the car bomb blew up near a police station in northern Tikrit, a bastion of Sunni Muslim Saddam loyalists north of the capital.

“As the Iraqi police continue to get stronger, and continue to pose a threat to the insurgents and terrorists, they will be targeted,” said US military spokesperson Major Neal O’Brien.

The insurgency is being fanned by widespread concerns among the Sunni Arab elite, which dominated Saddam’s regime, that the new Parliament will be dominated by the long-oppressed Shi’ite majority.

Bush, asked if there is a plan to bring the Sunni population into the future government if they do not vote on January 30, said the US is working to ensure as high a participation as possible.

“We want there to be wide participation. We want there to be a government that is representative,” Bush told the Wall Street Journal.

“There are people there who can’t stand the thought of elections moving forward ... And the reason why is because extremists who have adopted the philosophy which is the opposite of ours recognise that free societies will be their doom.”

US embassy officials turned down an offer from prominent Sunni fundamentalist clerics who said they will lift calls for an election boycott among their embittered religious community if the Americans give a timeline for their withdrawal from Iraq.

The US is boosting troop numbers to 150 000 ahead of the poll, while its top ally, Britain—which already has about 9 000 troops in southern Iraq—announced on Monday that it will send in another 400 troops for a limited period.

Based on the latest Pentagon figures, the US has lost 1 347 troops since the March 2003 invasion.

US commander Lieutenant General Thomas Metz has warned that attacks might rise to more than 80 a day as insurgents try to sabotage the polls for a National Assembly to draft a post-Saddam Constitution.

Security forces ‘winning battle’

But Iraq’s interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, insisted on Monday his security forces are winning the battle against extremists, reeling off a list of captured militants, including top leaders of Mohammed’s Army, a hard-line Islamist movement, and other rebel groups.

“This indicates our forces’ growing capabilities ...
in dealing with such terrorist groups. Each time they choose a new leader for these terrorist groups, they will be detained, captured and they will face trial,” Allawi said.

The trial of the accused ringleader of the Abu Ghraib detainee-abuse scandal also continued on Monday at a US base in Texas. A lawyer for accused Specialist Charles Graner argued there is nothing wrong with piling up naked prisoners.

“Cheerleaders all over America form pyramids,” Guy Womack said in reference to charges that Graner piled naked Iraqi detainees on top of each other and photographed them at the prison near Baghdad in late 2003.

The first court martial of a British soldier accused of mistreating Iraqi prisoners also got under way at a military base in Germany, in a case already dubbed “Britain’s Abu Ghraib”.

Gary Bartlam appeared at a military court in Hohne in western Germany while three other soldiers are due to face court martial this week.

In a troubling finding for the United Nations, audits of its oil-for-food programme in Iraq released on Monday show contractors pocketed millions of dollars in excess charges as UN officials failed to oversee the operation properly.

The audits, which the UN had declined to release, were made public by a commission of enquiry appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan last year to answer allegations of widespread corruption in the programme.

The humanitarian programme was in operation during the last decade of Saddam’s rule when Iraq was under sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

On the hostages front, France’s Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, on Tuesday refused to use the word “kidnapping” to describe the disappearance last week of French newspaper journalist Florence Aubenas in Iraq.

“At the current time, I would not speak about a kidnapping. We’re trying to find them. We’re mobilised, we’re seeking information, we’ve made all the right contacts,” Barnier told private RMC radio.—Sapa-AFP

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