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Iraq death toll spikes ahead of election

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The number of Iraqis killed in February almost doubled month on month, official figures showed on Monday, just days ahead of a March 7 general election which Al-Qaeda has threatened to disrupt.

Data compiled by the health, interior and defence ministries showed that 352 Iraqis — 211 civilians, 96 police and 45 soldiers — died in attacks last month, an 80 percent increase on January’s toll of 196 killed.

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Last month’s death toll was also around 40 percent higher than the figure for February 2009.

Iraq’s national security adviser told AFP on Sunday that security forces had found and prevented at least 10 vehicle bombs in the past month as Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups sought to target the election.

Most of those bombs, which would have caused “very major damage,” would have struck in Baghdad, Safa Hussein said.

In addition to February’s deaths, 684 people were wounded in attacks — 414 civilians, 155 police and 115 soldiers. A total of 52 insurgents were killed in February, and 661 were arrested, according to the official figures.

The UN’s envoy to Iraq, however, said that while he was concerned by the level of violence, it had not affected preparations for next Sunday’s election.

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“We are concerned about the security of candidates and election organisers,” Ad Melkert told reporters at a briefing in central Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.

“But what one does not see is a general pattern that might really affect also the assessment of whether the campaign as such is enabling the Iraqi people really to express their preference,” he said.

“What we don’t see at this moment is, say, overall community or sectarian confrontation.”

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The national security adviser told AFP that of the groups seeking to strike in the election period, “AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) attacks are the most direct and serious security threat.”

“Al-Qaeda will try to target the whole process, but we do think that it doesn’t have the capacity to reach its goals,” Hussein said.

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“Maybe they will try to influence the results of the election considerably, and we think they don’t have this capability either. Maybe they can carry out some operations that damage some innocent people.”

A series of attacks targeting the Shiite religious mourning ceremony of Arbaeen in Baghdad and the holy shrine city of Karbala in central Iraq accounted for more than 100 dead alone last month.

On February 1, a female suicide bomber blew herself up among a crowd of Shiite pilgrims at a rest station south of Baghdad, killing 41 people including women and children. The pilgrims had been on their way to Karbala by foot.

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Two days later, a suicide attacker ploughed a bomb-laden vehicle into pilgrims on the outskirts of Karbala, killing 23 people. And on February 5, a bombing on the last day of Arbaeen killed 41 Shiite pilgrims.

Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary commemorating the slaying of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures, by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680 AD.

Five American soldiers died in Iraq last month, one in combat and four in non-combat related incidents, according to the independent website www.icasualties.org.

In total, 4,380 American troops have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

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Though the level of violence has dropped dramatically since 2007, Iraq Body Count, an independent monitoring group, has warned that death tolls from 2009 indicated that security gains are levelling off.

On the political front, as many as 180,000 Iraqis living in Syria are expected to cast ballots as part of global out-of-country voting, Iraq’s electoral commission said.


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