Wave of Car Bombings in Baghdad Kill 12

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A wave of car bombings shook the Iraqi capital Wednesday, killing at least 12 people as rebels stepped up their offensive to block the Jan. 30 national election. Other attacks were reported north and south of the capital, but the U.N. election chief said only a sustained onslaught could stop the ballot.

U.S. military officials put the death toll from the day's violence at 26, but the number was based on initial field reports and witnesses and Iraqi officials put the toll lower. Iraqi authorities said 12 people were killed in the bombings and another person killed in a drive-by shooting on a Kurdish political party office.

Al-Qaida's branch in Iraq said it carried out the first of the day's blasts, at the Australian Embassy in the capital. A truck packed with explosives went off outside the concrete barriers in front of the embassy about 7 a.m., killing two people and wounding several, including two Australian soldiers.

"A lion of monotheism and faith ... carried out a martyrdom operation nearby the Australian Embassy," the group al-Qaida in Iraq said in a Web statement. The group is led by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has allied himself with Osama bin Laden's terror network.

A half hour after the embassy blast, another car bomb killed six at a police station located next to a hospital in eastern Baghdad, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said.

A third car bombing struck at the main gate to an Iraqi military garrison located at a disused airport in central Baghdad. An officer at the Iraqi Defense Ministry said three Iraqi army troops were killed in that attack.

The U.S. military also said a car bomb detonated southwest of Baghdad International Airport, killing two Iraqi security guards.

Hours later, another car bomb went off in northern Baghdad around noon near a bank and a Shiite Muslim mosque. Iraqi police said one person was killed and one killed at that bombing.

Elsewhere in the capital, insurgents in a car fired on a Baghdad office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, killing one of its members and wounding another, PUK officials said.

Outside the capital, Maj. Gen. Wirya Maarouf, the dean of a police academy in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in the city of Irbil. One bystander was killed and another injured, said police Col. Tharwat AbdulKarim.

In the northern city of Dahuk, a roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of provincial Gov. Nejrivan Ahmed but he was not injured, AbdulKarim said.

An Iraqi police officer was killed Wednesday in another car bombing in the largely Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad, the Polish military said.

Fresh clashes erupted Wednesday between U.S. troops and insurgents in the northern city of Mosul. A car bomb exploded beside a U.S. convoy in the eastern part of the city, and two Iraqis were killed when American troops opened fire after the blast, witnesses said. There were no reported casualties among the Americans.

Also, in the city of Kirkuk, two human rights leaders were killed, officials said. Their bodies were found shot in the head and chest after being kidnapped Tuesday, police said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials had predicted a steady increase in violence in the run-up to the election, in which Iraqi voters will choose a National Assembly and provincial legislatures. Sunni Muslim insurgents have vowed to disrupt the ballot.

Carlos Valenzuela, the chief U.N. election adviser in Iraq, said the intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail this month's balloting is "high and very serious."

But Valenzuela told reporters Tuesday that only a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers will prevent this month's national elections from going ahead.

U.S. troops have stepped up raids across the country, arresting scores of suspected insurgents in hopes of aborting plans to disrupt the ballot.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military acknowledged that its soldiers opened fire on a car as it approached their checkpoint, killing two civilians in the vehicle's front seat. Six children riding in the backseat were unhurt.

It wasn't clear from a military statement whether the two victims were the children's parents. "Military officials extend their condolences for this unfortunate incident," the statement said.

In China, authorities warned people to avoid traveling to Iraq as diplomats tried to win the release of eight Chinese laborers abducted by Iraqi insurgents.

"Please don't rashly go to Iraq, in order to avoid unforeseeable incidents," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The eight abducted Chinese, including two teenagers, were shown in a video released Tuesday by insurgents. The Foreign Ministry said it had asked for help from Iraqi religious leaders who helped to win the release of other Chinese abducted last year.

The latest abductees are from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, which sends thousands of laborers each year to the Middle East and elsewhere.