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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 19:47 GMT
Iraqis push ahead with elections
US marines battle insurgents in the devastated city of Falluja
Violence in hotspots like Falluja threatens to disrupt the poll
Iraq has set a date of 30 January 2005 for its first nationwide election since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The announcement came from the independent Iraqi electoral commission in Baghdad.

There had been mounting speculation as to whether elections would be feasible given the continuing violence.

On Sunday insurgents ambushed a convoy of National Guards in the flashpoint city of Ramadi, west of Falluja, killing at least eight and wounding 18.

Meanwhile, US military officials issued a statement on another incident in Ramadi, in which US soldiers fired on a civilian bus, killing at least seven people and wounding 11.

A US Marines spokesman said the bus had failed to stop at a checkpoint, even after warning shots, and the Americans had then opened fire for their own protection.

In the northern city of Mosul, US troops found at least two more bodies a day after discovering the corpses of nine men shot in the back of the head. All are believed to be Iraqi soldiers killed by insurgents.

Election plans

Iraqi electoral commission spokesman Farid Ayar said areas beset by violence - including insurgent strongholds such as Falluja and Ramadi - would still participate in the elections.

"No Iraqi province will be excluded because the law considers Iraq as one constituency and therefore it is not legal to exclude any province," he said, quoted by the Associated Press.

Under the Iraqi timetable for democracy, elections for a transitional parliament needed to be held by the end of January.

Voters are still being registered, even though some registration centres closed because of attacks. More than 120 parties are said to have registered.

'Clear message'

A UN official told the BBC that the decision to name a date was a clear message that the commission presently believed the vote could be held on time.

Adverts have been running on Iraqi television encouraging participation in the vote.

Iraq's Shia majority, repressed under the former regime, is eager for the elections to take place, says the BBC's Caroline Hawley in Baghdad.

But the Sunni minority, which previously held power, is less keen.

Much of the conflict between US-led troops and insurgents has taken place in Sunni areas of the country, and Sunni militants have already threatened to disrupt the vote.

Iraqis will vote for a transitional parliament that will pick a new government and oversee the writing of a constitution.

Only senior members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party are being excluded from taking part in the poll.

Mr Ayar said 122 political parties out of 195 applications had been accepted and registered for the elections so far.

Debt relief

There was good news for Iraq's interim government on two fronts on Sunday:

A cousin of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, kidnapped on 9 November, has been freed, according to media reports and party officials.

And agreement has been reached among a group of creditor nations to forgive a large chunk of the country's debt.

The 19-nation Paris Club agreed to a plan to write off some 80% of the $40bn debt owed to them.

Iraq has said its $120bn (64.5bn) debts are hampering its reconstruction.

It comes ahead of a two-day conference in Egypt to discuss the rebuilding of Iraq.

Members of G8 countries, the UN, EU, Arab League, Organisation of the Islamic Conference and Iraq's neighbours will attend the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, which starts on Monday.

The interim Iraqi government said it would be presenting evidence that some of its neighbours were contributing to the increase of violence in the country.

A spokesman for Mr Allawi said Iraq would put pressure on neighbouring countries not to allow their territories to be used to support violence and terrorism.

The government is to propose tightening border controls and exchanging information about militants operating in neighbouring countries.




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