U.S. and Iraqi forces stepped up security across Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi forces stepped up security across Iraq on Thursday in an effort to reduce insurgent attacks aimed at wrecking this weekend's constitutional referendum. One day after Iraqi lawmakers approved a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote, sealing a compromise designed to win minority Sunni Arab support for the charter, cities such as Baghdad were unusually quiet on Thursday morning as a four-day national holiday began, closing government offices and schools ahead of Saturday's vote.

A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew also was being imposed Thursday, and the following day the country's borders will be closed and all travel among its provinces stopped.

Working under cover of darkness, U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to raid suspected militant safe houses in cities such as Baghdad, and to build 4-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) concrete barriers topped with concertina wire in front of polling places such as schools. The walls are designed to protect the areas from bombing by insurgents.

Police went even further in Mosul, a city northwest of Baghdad that has suffered many militant attacks, imposing a ban Wednesday night on all civilian vehicles. But a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. military convoy there Thursday morning, killing two Iraqi civilians and wounding one, said police Brig. Gen. Saeed Ahmed Al-Jibouri.

In the last 18 days, at least 440 people have been killed in Iraq in militant violence as the insurgents try to scare voters away from the polls Saturday. Most of the fatalities have been caused by suicide car bombs, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings. The bodies of many other Iraqis who had been kidnapped and killed have been found in isolated areas.

"Our soldiers recognize that they are not here to influence the election, but they are here to allow the Iraqi people the opportunity to vote," said U.S. Lt. Col. Jeff Edge, as his battalion delivered barriers to a volatile, mostly Sunni Arab area of southwest Baghdad. During the first three days this week, Iraqi and U.S. forces in the capital, backed by Black Hawk helicopters, reported capturing 75 suspected insurgents, seizing three large weapons caches and rescuing an Iraqi man who had been kidnapped by insurgents.

There are now 156,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a total that has been rising in recent weeks as the 101st Airborne returns, along with lead elements of the 3rd Corps Support Command. Before that regularly scheduled rotation, the number was about 140,000, the military said. On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, a suicide attacker hit the northwestern town of Tal Afar. The bomber set off explosives hidden under his clothes at the first of two checkpoints outside the army recruiting center in Tal Afar, where men were gathering to apply for jobs, killing at least 30 people and wounding 35.

A day earlier, a suicide bomber killed 30 civilians and wounded 45 when he plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a crowded outdoor market in Tal Afar. Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for that attack.

Also Wednesday, the military announced that two U.S. soldiers died and one was injured when their vehicle rolled over while on patrol during combat near Balad, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad. The crash brought to 1,962 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Iraqis watching state-owned Al-Iraqiya television on Wednesday night, saw the National Assembly approve a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote, sealing a compromise designed to win Sunni support and to boost chances for the charter's approval in Saturday's referendum, reports the AP. I.L.

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