BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi officials announced Tuesday they will seal the country's borders, extend a nighttime curfew and restrict movement to protect voters during the Jan. 30 vote, which insurgents are seeking to ruin with a campaign of violence.
Attacks continued Tuesday, with a suicide car bomber detonating explosives outside the offices of a leading Shiite political party, killing himself and three other people, in an apparent bid to frighten voters. Masked gunmen also killed a Shiite Muslim candidate in the Iraqi capital.
A Catholic archbishop kidnapped by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul was released Tuesday, a day after his abduction. The Vatican had called his abduction a "terrorist act."
Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency, are increasingly honing in on Shiites in their effort to ruin the election that is widely expected to propel their religious rivals to a position of dominance.
Tuesday's car bombing gouged a crater in the pavement, left several vehicles in flames and spread shredded debris and flesh on the street outside the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a main contender in the election.
The party, known as SCIRI, has close ties to Iran, and is strongly opposed by Sunni Muslim militants.
The assailant told guards at a checkpoint leading to the party's office that he was part of SCIRI's security staff, but detonated his bomb-laden car at the guard post when he was not allowed to enter.
A spokesman for the Shiite party said it would not be cowed.
"SCIRI will not be frightened by such an act," Ridha Jawad said. "SCIRI will continue the march toward building Iraq, establishing justice and holding the elections."
Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission announced that the country's international borders would be closed from Jan. 29 until Jan. 31, except for Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia.
Iraqis will also be barred from traveling between provinces and a nighttime curfew will be imposed during the same period, according to a statement from the commission's Farid Ayar.
Such measures had been expected because of the grave security threat. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are hoping to encourage a substantial turnout but fear that if most Sunnis stay away from the polls, the legitimacy of the new government will be in doubt.
The interior minister warned that if the country's Sunni Arab minority bows to rebel threats and stays away from the polls, the nation could descend into civil war.
Falah Hassan al-Naqib, who is himself a Sunni, told reporters he expects Sunni insurgents to escalate attacks before the election, especially in the Baghdad area. Voters are to choose a new 275-member National Assembly.
"If any group does not participate in the elections, it will constitute treason," al-Naqib said. He added that "boycotting the elections will not produce a National Assembly that represents the Iraqi people."
If that happens, he added, the Iraqi people "will enter into a civil war that will divide the country."
In Mosul, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa was freed a day after he was seized near his church, according to local officials and the Vatican.
"He has been freed and he is on his way home without paying any ransom," said Potris Moshi, an assistant to the church leader.
Earlier, the Catholic news agency MISNA reported that the 66-year-old archbishop's captors had demanded a $200,000 ransom.
Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. The major Christian groups include Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians with small numbers of Catholics. Several churches have been bombed in recent months, presumably by Islamic extremists.
Elsewhere, a third American died in fighting in Iraq's troubled Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the military said Tuesday. Two others assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were also killed in action there on Monday.
The military gave no other details and it was unclear if the three troops were killed in a suicide car bombing in the western city of Ramadi that U.S. officials said resulted in U.S. casualties.
In Baghdad, masked gunmen Monday shot and killed Shaker Jabbar Sahl, 48, a Shiite who was running on the ticket of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, headed by Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a cousin of Iraq's last king.
Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority has welcomed the vote, while many Sunnis want it postponed, arguing that security is precarious and the election should not take place under foreign occupation.
Just south of Baghdad, in the town of Youssifiyah, Iraqi troops distributed leaflets Tuesday informing residents that they will have to vote in Baghdad because they cannot secure the area.
In other developments:
- An American patrol was hit by a roadside bomb in Mosul, police said. There was no word on any casualties.
- U.S. forces killed five insurgents in northern Iraq on Monday, the military said. Three were shot to death after troops spotted them carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar rounds in the city of Mosul. Two others were killed while staging an attack.