BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents hit the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with a rocket, killing two Americans, set off explosions that killed eight Iraqis and a U.S. soldier and blasted polling places across the country Saturday as Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s government urged Iraqis to overcome their fears of violence and vote in landmark elections.
The strike in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was a dramatic sign of guerrillas’ ability to hit at the heart of power in Iraq even as the U.S. and Iraqi militaries took some of their strictest security measures ever for the election, imposing a strict lockdown in the capital and large parts of the country.
The rocket hit the embassy’s compound after nightfall, near the building itself, an embassy official said. A civilian and a Navy sailor, both assigned to the embassy, died and four Americans were injured.
During the day, bursts of heavy machine gun fire rattled through central Baghdad at midday, and several heavy explosions shook the downtown area in the afternoon. A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in a western district of the capital, the military said.
Iraqi police and soldiers set up checkpoints through streets largely devoid of traffic, with a nighttime curfew imposed across the country and the borders sealed. Seven American soldiers were killed Friday in the Baghdad area, including two pilots who died in the crash of their OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter.
West of the capital, in the insurgent bastion of Ramadi, five Iraqis with hands tied behind their backs were found slain Saturday on a city street. One of the bodies was decapitated. Militants accused them of working for the Americans.
Sunni Muslim extremists have warned Iraqis not to participate in the election Sunday, threatening to “wash the streets” in blood. Iraqis will chose a 275-member National Assembly and provincial councils in Iraq’s 18 provinces. Voters in the Kurdish self-ruled area of the north will select a new regional parliament.
At a press conference, Allawi’s spokesman sought to boost Iraqi morale, appealing to his countrymen to take part in the election.
“I encourage the Iraqi people to overcome their fear. It is important. It will preserve the integrity of Iraq,” spokesman Thaer al-Naqeeb said. “If you vote ... the terrorists will be defeated.”
Allawi ordered a 30-day extension of the state of emergency in place across the country, except for Kurdish areas in the north, his office said in a statement. The current state of emergency, first declared in November, was to run out on Feb. 8. The decree gives the government the power to declare curfews, make arrests without warrants and launch police and military operations when it deems necessary.
President Ghazi al-Yawer acknowledged that the violence and insurgent threats could keep many from voting — though he said he expected a majority to cast ballots and that few would stay away because of calls for a boycott by some Sunni clerics who say the vote is illegitimate.
“We hope, God willing, that turnout at polling stations will be high. The minority that will not participate, will do that because of the security situation and not to boycott,” al-Yawer told Al-Arabiya television.
The suicide attack occurred in Khanaqin, 70 miles northeast of Baghdad on the Iranian border. Police Col. Mohammed al-Khanaqini said the attacker was wearing an explosives belt and detonated himself outside a police station between a U.S. base and a courthouse.
Eight mortar shells landed at an Iraqi National Guard barracks in the central town of Suwayrah, killing one Iraqi soldier and wounding another, the Polish military said. South of Baghdad, rebels opened fire on U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces as they placed concrete blast barriers around polling stations south of the capital Saturday.
In the northern city of Mosul, rebels distributed leaflets warning people to stay clear of polling stations to avoid getting hurt.
In Khaldiyah, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad, insurgents burst into a school used as an Iraqi National Guard base, asked the few members there to leave and then destroyed it with explosives, residents said. No one was reported hurt.
Attacks on polling stations were reported in at least eight cities from Dohuk in the far north to Basra in the south.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have imposed strict security measures, including sealing the country’s borders, closing Baghdad’s international airport, extending the hours of the curfew to cover from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. and restricting private vehicles.
In Basra, however, hundreds of Iraqi police uniforms have gone missing in Iraq’s second largest city and may be in the hands of insurgents to help them slip through checkpoints, according to a report by the British media pool.
Four police vehicles were stolen by insurgents from a prison at Umm Qasr south if Basra, British authorities said, raising fears the cars could be used in suicide attacks.
Members of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority — estimated at 60 percent of the population — are expected to turn out in force for the ballot, encouraged by their clergy. A heavy turnout is also expected in Kurdish areas.
But the key issue is participation by Sunni Arabs, many of whom fear domination by the Shiites or face intimidation from insurgents active in Sunni areas.
Al-Yawer waned that “any political process that does not have the participation of the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds will not be fated to succeed.”
An electoral commission official in one of the four Sunni provinces where turnout is expected to be light said voting would be “almost impossible” in some cities because of violence. Khalaf Mohammed Salih, a commission spokesman in Salaheddin province, said he expected violence to virtually shut down voting in the provincial towns of Beiji, Dour and Samarra.
In Fallujah, the former Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers, their faces masked to hide their identity, stood guard on the streets, where many shops were shuttered for fear of election day violence.
“We will not vote because our houses have been destroyed,” complained resident Ala Hussein. “We don’t have electricity or water. The Iraqi National Guard fire at us 24 hours a day. So who will we vote for? We don’t have security or pensions.”