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Insurgents Attack Across Iraq, Expatriots Start to Vote

Iraqis living abroad have begun voting in the country's national elections - as insurgents press on with attacks aimed at disrupting Sunday's vote in Iraq.

The polls in Australia are the first to open among 14 countries where 280,000 Iraqis living abroad have registered to vote. Iraqis there headed to the polls early Friday.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Minister of State Kasim Daoud stressed that strict security measures are being implemented for the election. He added that Syria has not positively responded to Iraq's request to tighten security along its borders to prevent insurgents from entering Iraq. Mr. Daoud also accused Iran of interfering in Iraq.

Meanwhile, insurgent attacks Thursday killed 15 civilians in the Sunni heartland around Baghdad. A U.S. Marine was also killed in action south of Baghdad.

Insurgents also blew up schools and other buildings that were slated to be used Sunday as voting centers. Witnesses said militants ordered the schools evacuated before detonating their explosives

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from Baghdad that security eoncerns are dominating election preperation. Fourteen million people in Iraq are eligible to vote in Sunday's landmark elections to choose a new interim national assembly, candidates for seats in the Kurdish legislature, and candidates for provincial council seats across the country. But with security concerns influencing every aspect of the balloting process, election day in Iraq will be like no other.

Iraq's first-ever democratic elections appear to have all the elements necessary for an overwhelmingly successful vote.

On the national level, voters on Sunday will get to decide among 75 parties, nine coalitions, and 27 individuals to fill 275 seats on the National Assembly. The assembly is to choose Iraq's new interim government and draft a permanent constitution.

In the far north of the country, Kurdish voters will face a dizzying ballot containing the names of 463 candidates, who are vying for 111 seats in the Kurdish legislature. And all Iraqi voters will have a choice among nearly 11 thousand candidates on the ballot seeking council seats in Iraq's 18 provinces.

Ninety thousand ballot boxes and some 60 million forge-proof paper ballots have been dispatched across the country. A member of the Iraqi Electoral Commission, Safwal Rashid, says 140,000 people have also been hired in Iraq to work at polling sites, which will be open from seven o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the afternoon.

"There are around five 5,300 election centers in Iraq," he said. "These numbers are changing because some of the provinces are demanding more centers. Some are closed for [one] reason or others. But our latest estimation for number of [polling] stations are 28,000."

But unrelenting violence by Sunni militants, aimed at derailing the elections, means that Iraqi voters in many cities will face dangers and security measures not seen anywhere else in the world.

A ban on car travel in most cities that day will force many Iraqis to walk to polling sites to vote. The move minimizes the chance of suicide car bombings at election centers, but it leaves voters vulnerable to kidnappings and sniper attacks.

Once they reach the polling center, every voter will be subject to an intense body search by Iraqi security forces. There is speculation that suicide bombers may try to sneak into centers wearing vests filled with explosives.

Violence, in the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar and in the ethnically volatile province of Ninevah in the north, has been escalating so alarmingly ahead of the elections, voters there will be allowed to register and vote at the same time on election day.

An estimated 130,000 Iraqi police and army soldiers will be on hand to provide a three-ring defense around all of the polling centers. But almost no foreign observers will be at any of the sites to monitor the polling.

To avoid transporting ballot boxes on roads that could be ambushed, election workers will count the votes at each polling site as soon as the polls close.

Iraqi Electoral Commissioner Rashid says it is one of the reasons why it may take as many as 10 days to announce the final election results.

"Each station will count the ballot papers. Then, it will announce the result to the people there, whether they are from media or political entities," he said. "These results will be sent to Baghdad to the main headquarters to be recounted again. So, there is no chance to have real results, not that night and even the day after."

Another factor which will cause a delay has to do with the Iraqi expatriate vote. About 280,000 of some one million Iraqis living in 14 countries have registered to vote. Because of the difficulty in reaching some polling centers, the Iraqi Electoral Commission is allowing them to vote over a three-day period.

Some information for this report provided by AFP and Reuters.