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Iraq on edge ahead of polls

Baghdad, Dec. 9 (Reuters): People laughed as an elderly beggar pretended she was a journalist at the fortified entrance of Baghdad's government compound. Even the usually grim-faced security guards were amused.

But the joke was short lived in a city on edge.

A shot suddenly rang out. Guards whipped out AK-47 rifles and fired as people ran for cover. Panicked voices crackled across walkie-talkies. After several minutes of mayhem the bodyguard of a judge in a car raised his hands. He said he fired his weapon accidentally while fiddling with the clip. Nobody was hurt. Not everyone is so lucky in Baghdad, a city that is bracing for violence ahead of elections scheduled for January 30. Similar incidents have turned bloody in Iraq, where civilians often get caught up in fighting between insurgents and US troops that leaves everybody on edge.

Iraqi election officials were among those who ran for cover after the shooting started outside the compound which houses the Iraqi government and US and British embassies.

Panic gripped the checkpoint, a prime target for insurgents who have mortared and bombed the area before. Tempers flared as onlookers wondered whether a gunfight would break out between security guards waving their weapons around. 'That's it. Only the officials will be allowed inside. The bodyguards should stay out here,' said the chief guard.

The American security guards were just as nervous. One arrived looking for the man who fired. A US helicopter flew overhead and Bradley fighting vehicles arrived. The only relaxed people were Nepalese private security guards who calmly instructed dogs wearing red vests to sniff beneath cars for bombs. Tension eventually eased but security guards were not taking any chances. They handcuffed the man who accidentally fired his gun and locked him up in a tiny room. His bodyguard colleague offered the chief security man a present wrapped in a plastic bag in a bid to defuse the crisis and release his friend.

But charm works few tricks in Iraq these days.

'Yes I know it's a present,' said the guard.'Take it back. Remember the guards don't go inside anymore.'

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