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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi authorities set Jan. 30 as the date for the nation's first election since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and pledged that voting would take place throughout the country despite rising violence and calls by Sunni clerics for a boycott.
Farid Ayar, spokesman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said voting would push ahead even in areas still wracked by violence -- including Fallujah, Mosul and other parts of the volatile Sunni Triangle.
The vote for the 275-member National Assembly is seen as a major step toward building democracy after years of Saddam's tyranny.
But the violence, which has escalated this month with the U.S.-led offensive against Fallujah, has raised fears voting will be nearly impossible in insurgency-torn regions -- or that Sunni Arabs, angry at the U.S.-Iraqi crackdown, will reject the election.
If either takes place, it could undermine the vote's legitimacy.
Ayar insisted that "no Iraqi province will be excluded because the law considers Iraq as one constituency, and therefore it is not legal to exclude any province."
To bolster Iraq's democracy, 19 creditor nations agreed Sunday to write off 80 percent of the $42 billion that Iraq owes them. U.S. and Iraqi troops have been clearing the last of the resistance from Fallujah, the main rebel bastion stormed Nov. 8 in hopes of breaking the back of the insurgency before the election.
In Fallujah, Marine Maj. Jim West said Sunday that U.S. troops have found nearly 20 "atrocity sites" where insurgents imprisoned, tortured and murdered hostages. West said troops found rooms containing knives and black hoods, "many of them blood-covered."
The storming of Fallujah has heightened tensions throughout Sunni Arab areas, triggering clashes in Mosul, Beiji, Samarra, Ramadi and elsewhere.
In Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, insurgents ambushed an Iraqi National Guard patrol Sunday, killing eight guardsmen and injuring 18 others, police said.
U.S. forces conducted a raid to capture a "high value target" associated with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Haqlaniyah, 135 miles northwest of the capital, a U.S. spokesman said Sunday. Six people were detained, although the military did not say whether the target was among them.
Witnesses said U.S. troops raided a Sunni mosque in Haqlaniyah, arresting its cleric -- Douraid Fakhry -- and detaining dozens of residents in nearby homes. The U.S. military denied that a mosque was raided in the area.
South of Baghdad, a convoy of Iraqi National Guard and police came under attack by insurgents armed with small-arms fire, rocket propelled grenades and roadside bombs in Latifiyah, the U.S. military said. There were several Iraqi casualties.
To the north, American soldiers in Mosul on Sunday discovered two more bodies, including one of an Iraqi Army soldier, near a site where the bodies of nine Iraqi soldiers were found a day earlier, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings with Task Force Olympia.
The nine, all shot in the head execution-style, were identified as soldiers based at al-Kisik, 30 miles west of Mosul. Four decapitated bodies, still unidentified, were found in Mosul Thursday.
In an Internet statement posted Sunday, al-Zarqawi's terror group, Al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed it killed 17 Iraqi National Guardsmen from al-Kisik. The report couldn't be independently verified. Hastings said he had no report of missing Iraqi guardsmen.
Four large explosions shook the area near Baghdad's U.S.-guarded Green Zone -- a frequent target of insurgent mortars and rockets -- after sundown Sunday. There was no word on any damage or casualties.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's office announced that his cousin, Ghazi Allawi, 75, has been released by his kidnappers, nearly two weeks after he was abducted along with his wife and pregnant daughter-in-law. The prime minister's office had no other details on his release.
The two women were released on Nov. 15. Their kidnappers, who identified themselves as the militant group Ansar al-Jihad, had threatened to behead them unless all Iraqi detainees were released and the siege of Fallujah halted.
The clerical leadership of the country's Shiite community, believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people, has been clamoring for an election since the April 2003 collapse of the Saddam regime, and voting is expected to go smoothly in northern areas ruled by the Kurds, the most pro-American group.
However, Sunni Arabs, estimated at about 20 percent of the population, fear domination by the Shiites. Sunni clerics have called for a boycott of the vote because of the Fallujah attack.
But Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it's important that the elections be held as promised.
"If they are delayed, it would be a sign that the chaos, terror, can succeed in destroying whatever chance we have for democracy in Iraq," he said.
The government has launched a campaign against some hardline Sunni clerics accused of fueling the insurgency or allowing weapons to be hidden in their mosques. On Friday, Iraqi and U.S. forces raided Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque -- one of the country's most important Sunni mosques.
During the January election, Iraqis will choose a National Assembly which will draft a new constitution. If the constitution is ratified, another election will be held in December 2005.
A stable, legitimate government could enable the United States to begin drawing down its 138,000-strong military presence and gradually hand over security responsibility to Iraqi forces.
"Having elections in Iraq are very important, and having them on time is also so important for the Iraqi people to have more security in Iraq," said Salama al-Khafaji, a Shiite member of the interim Iraqi National Council, a government advisory body.
Ayar, the election commission spokesman, said that 122 political parties out of 195 applications were accepted and registered for the elections. The commission has asked the United Nations to send international monitors for the elections.
Around 35 U.N. experts have already arrived, he said, adding, "we need as many monitors as possible."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)