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Total-war cry on poll-eve

Baghdad, Jan. 29 (Reuters): Insurgents vowing total war on Iraq's election killed 17 people on the eve of the vote today and the country's President warned the violence would scare most Iraqis away from the polls.

But interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appealed to Iraqis to defy militants 'trying to break us and to break our world' and exhorted voters to cast ballots in Iraq's first multi-party election for half-a- century.

Even as security forces barricaded streets, sealed Iraq's borders and closed Baghdad airport, more than a dozen polling stations were attacked and bloodshed continued to stain the electoral countdown.

'What we hope is that most Iraqis will take part in the election, but we know that the majority will not because of the security situation,' President Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni Arab in Iraq's interim government, said.

With just a day to go before the polls, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a US-Iraqi security centre in the town of Khanaqin, northeast of Baghdad near the border with Iran. The US military said three Iraqi soldiers and five civilians were killed. No Americans were hurt.

Most other attacks were concentrated in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad where the insurgency has been fiercest and where many once-privileged Sunnis plan to boycott the election.

Three civilians were killed in a roadside bombing in the city of Samarra, and a rocket attack on an Iraqi army base in the town of Duluiya killed three soldiers.

Insurgents blew up an explosives-laden donkey cart outside a polling station, killing a guard, in the town of Sharqat, south of Mosul, witnesses said. Mortar rounds hit a voting centre in the refinery town of Baiji, wounding four guards, after two other sites were dynamited there overnight.

Three Iraqi contractors abducted a week ago were found shot dead in the town of Balad. Insurgents brand all Iraqis working with US forces as collaborators and have killed hundreds.

The election forms the cornerstone of the Bush administration's plan to transform Iraq from dictatorship to democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. But it risks fuelling the insurgency and fomenting sectarian strife.

With tension high in the capital, bursts of gunfire echoed in some areas and insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the fortified Baghdad Hotel. There was no word of casualties.

South of Baghdad, a Iraqi woman and her child were killed when mortar rounds targeting a US base in Musayyib struck their home, security officials said.

Al Qaida's shadowy leader in Iraq, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has vowed to create a bloodbath at the polls.

A statement from his group called voting stations 'centres of infidelity and immorality' and warned Iraqis to stay away.

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