In the waning moments of 2004, the two opposing visions of Iraq offered by Mr Allawi, a vocal advocate of next month’s polls, and fundamentalist hardliners revealed the high stakes in the war-torn country.

“Peace be upon you. My name is Iyad Allawi and I am Iraqi and I wish my good nation a happy new year and I hope it brings to Iraqis and the whole world happiness, prosperity and stability God willing,” said the premier in the message aired on state-owned television Al-Iraqiya.

“The new year will be decisive in the history of our nation and its future.”

The camera occasionally zoomed in on his eyes and folded hands as the footage was interspersed with images of Baghdad and ordinary people strolling in busy markets to the mellow sound of a stringed instrument.

“There will be no true economic growth if we do not rid ourselves of the old ways,” said Mr Allawi. “Economic and political progress require a democratic environment.”

The message, which lasted a little over three minutes, appeared to have been pre-recorded in Mr Allawi’s office in the fortified Green Zone, home to the interim government and the US embassy.

The chaos and mayhem of post-Saddam Iraq intruded almost immediately after the broadcast, when a string of explosions rattled central Baghdad.

With an eye to next month’s polls, radical Islamist groups in Iraq including Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Al-Sunna warned in a statement they considered democracy “un-Islamic” and threatened strikes against anyone taking part in the January vote.

“Those who participate in this dirty farce will not be sheltered from the blows of the mujahedeen,” said a statement posted Thursday on an Islamist website, signed also by the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of the Mujahedeen.

US and Iraqi forces are bracing for violence. Adel Lami, a ranking officer on Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission, said about 100,000 police and national guard will be mobilized.

Iraqi voters are to choose a transitional 275-seat National Assembly, a parliament for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and 18 provincial councils.

But the elections are unfolding against a backdrop of ethnic and religious tension and a tenacious insurgency responsible for assassinations and bombings.

The polls have also become a public stage in America’s declared “war on terror”. US President George W. Bush has vowed Iraq’s election must go forward, while his nemesis, Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, purportedly told Iraqis this week to boycott the polls.

In a crackdown on militants, US troops and Iraqi security forces arrested 49 suspects in the insurgent hotbed of Duluiya north of Baghdad, swooping on the town before dawn and searching 13 homes, the US military said.

Duluiya lies in the so-called Sunni Muslim Triangle north and west of Baghdad that has provided a breeding ground for the insurgency.

A national guardsman was shot dead and six others wounded in a shootout Friday, minutes after a bomb blew up in the trouble spot of Mahmudiyah, just south of Baghdad, security sources said.

The area, known as the Triangle of Death, is thought to be a hub for insurgents infiltrating Baghdad or Shiite cities and has been targeted by intensive US military sweeps since October.

An insurgent was killed and 15 others arrested in the latest clashes around the rebel hotspot of Mosul, the US army said.

Elsewhere, two civilians were killed in a car bomb blast by the refinery town of Baiji in the Sunni-dominated region north of Baghdad, the army said.

Police said they found two corpses in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, in the latest execution-style slaying by insurgents, who have murdered more than 200 people since November.

The group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, bin Laden’s representative in Iraq, claimed responsibility Friday for car bomb attacks that killed a US soldier in Mosul two days ago.

A CD distributed by the group, showed a Russian-made military truck and a car exploding against a US patrol and a combat outpost.

The last six months of 2004 proved the deadliest period for US forces in Iraq despite the formal end of the US-led occupation in June, with a total of 503 soldiers killed, figures showed Friday.

The deadliest month was November when 141 troops were killed, reflecting the heavy combat in the Sunni Muslim bastion of Fallujah where US troops battled rebels in the street in some of the heaviest fighting ever in Iraq.
The US military said that the army and marines kicked off a new offensive south of Baghdad this week in a belt of towns, known as the “triangle of death” due to the area’s high rate of kidnappings and executions.