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Deadly run-up to Iraq polls
A sequence of pictures shows (upper left) US Marine Ryan P. Shane pulling a fatally wounded comrade to safety while under fire in Falluja; (upper right) another marine joins the rescue attempt; (lower left) Shane is hit by insurgents and (lower right) is wounded. (Reuters)

Baghdad, Dec. 19 (Reuters): Insurgents dragged three employees of Iraq's Electoral Commission from a car in Baghdad today and shot them dead, the latest in a series of attacks designed to disrupt efforts to hold the January 30 election.

Suicide car bombers struck at the two main Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala today, killing at least 62 people and wounding more than 130.

Both bombs, which went off about two hours apart, exploded near crowded bus stations in a seemingly coordinated attempt to cause as much bloodshed as possible six weeks before the election.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said three junior employees had been killed but said it was unclear if they were targeted because they worked with the commission, which is charged with setting up and conducting the poll.

'We don't know if they were targeted specifically,' spokesperson and Commission board member Farid Ayar said.

A police source confirmed three bodies had been found near Haifa Street, a main thoroughfare of downtown Baghdad that has become a focal point of the Sunni insurgency in the capital.

Witnesses said insurgents opened fire on the vehicle before dragging three people from it and shooting them. The car was set on fire and the bodies left lying near the burning wreckage.

Guerrillas armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols then set up a roadblock on the street, stopping and searching every car that passed, pointing their guns in through the windows.

Fierce gunbattles ensued, witnesses said, as police tried for several hours to get to the scene of the attack. US military helicopters flew low overhead scanning the area, which echoed with gunfire and small explosions, residents said.

Haifa Street, on the west bank of the Tigris river, is home to about a dozen apartment complexes built by Saddam Hussein for those he favoured. Former regime loyalists are believed to have built a stronghold in the area over the past 18 months.

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