As Iraq hands out election IDs, unrest rages on

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi election officials began handing out new, computerized voter identification cards Saturday across the capital as the country prepares for its first nationwide election since the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But the more than $100 million push to modernize voting comes as officials can't distribute cards in embattled Anbar province, where al-Qaida fighters seized control of parts of two cities, and as militant attacks rage on unabated, killing at least 14 people alone Saturday and wounding nearly two dozen.

The new voter cards, which include a computer chip, will allow election officials to check a voter's identity and try to halt fraud. Several Iraqi political blocs alleged that some people voted multiple times in the last vote in 2010, although the results of the election were not widely disputed.

In previous elections, voters had to go through lists glued outside balloting centers to find their names before going inside. Spanish technology firm Indra signed a five-year deal with Iraq to supply the new system and train election officials.

Nearly 22 million Iraqis are eligible to cast their ballots in coming April 30 parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is eying a third term in office despite objections from political rivals who accuse him of marginalizing partners and seizing control of state institutions to consolidate power.

In a televised speech Wednesday, al-Maliki reiterated a pledge to not delay elections because of the violence, calling on people to overcome any reluctance to pick up cards "because their vote will be decisive this time."

Voters in 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces began to receive cards three weeks ago, Independent High Electoral Commission official Aziz al-Kheikani said. Distribution began Saturday in four new provinces, including the capital, Baghdad, he said.

Saddam Raheem Jassim, a resident of Baghdad, received his card Saturday and praised the effort.

"This identity chip for voters, looking at its form and shape, is good," Jassim said. "It looks like they made big effort for it, for the sake of Iraqi people. This will ensure our rights and prevent any means of forgery in the election."

Meanwhile Saturday, two bombs targeted a four-vehicle patrol in the town of al-Saadiyah, 140 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad, a police officer said. Militants opened fire on the troops after the bombing in an attack that killed nine and wounded four, he said.

The attack came hours after three car bombs exploded in the city of Tikrit, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, another police officer said. The officer said the blasts near the homes of local security and civilian officials killed five people and wounded 18.

Two medical officials confirmed figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information to journalists.

Fierce clashes pitting government security forces and allied Sunni tribal militias against a coalition of insurgents also have been raging in western Iraq's Anbar province since late December. An al-Qaida offshoot and other insurgent groups have taken control of the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi. Thousands have fled the violence.

On Saturday, al-Maliki announced a three-day halt of military operations in Fallujah as a "goodwill" gesture. In a statement read on state television, al-Maliki said the halt began Friday and will last through Monday after requests from clerics and tribal sheiks to halt the bloodletting.

Al-Maliki's statement did not say whether military operations would resume after the halt. Government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

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Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

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Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sinansm.

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