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Iraq locked down as voting begins

BAGHDAD – Iraq imposed a nationwide security lockdown as voting began today in key regional elections with blanket measures not seen since the deadliest years of the insurgency, underscoring the high stakes for Iraqi leaders desperate to portray stability after nearly six years of conflict. Although violence is down sharply – and with pre-election attacks relatively limited – authorities were unwilling to take any risks. They ordered cars off city streets, sealed borders and closed airports.

Colville man died in Iraq copter crash

A Colville man was one of four soldiers killed when two helicopters crashed Monday in northern Iraq. Chief Warrant Officer Benjamin H. Todd, 29, was flying one of the Kiowa Warrior helicopters that crashed in Iraq’s Tamim province.

Iraq takes step to oust Blackwater

BAGHDAD – Blackwater Worldwide, the security company accused of using excessive deadly force while protecting U.S. diplomats in Baghdad, would be barred from future work in Iraq under a decision by Baghdad officials to pull the firm’s security license. “We have been informed that Blackwater’s private security company operating license will not be granted,” a U.S. Embassy official said Thursday. “We don’t have specifics about dates. We are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision.”

Colville soldier dies in helicopter crash in Iraq

A Colville man was one of four soldiers killed when two helicopters crashed Monday in northern Iraq. Chief Warrant Officer Benjamin H. Todd, 29, was flying one of two Kiowa Warrior helicopters that crashed in Iraq’s Tamim province, about 20 miles west of Kirkuk.

Early elections begin in Iraq

BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands of police and soldiers, doctors at hospitals, prisoners clad in orange jumpsuits and residents forced from contested towns cast early ballots Wednesday in provincial elections that will redraw Iraq’s political landscape. Regular voting is scheduled for Saturday to choose the equivalent of state legislatures in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces. But early voting was allowed for certain groups, in particular the security forces, which will be deployed as part of a security clampdown. On election day, the government has ordered a nighttime curfew, the closing of Iraq’s borders and airport, and a ban on traffic in towns and cities.

Military helicopters crash

BAGHDAD – Four U.S. soldiers died early Monday when two military helicopters crashed in northern Iraq, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The fatalities did not appear to be the result of “enemy action,” according to the U.S. military, although an investigation was continuing. Officials did not make clear whether the choppers collided or crashed separately, roughly 18 miles southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, according to Iraqi police.

Quick Iraq exit risky, Crocker says

BAGHDAD – U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Thursday warned against a hasty withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and offered a sobering assessment of the country despite what he called its “remarkable transition” in the last two years. Crocker, in his last meeting with Western journalists before retiring next month, spoke a day after President Barack Obama reiterated his desire to end the American presence in Iraq, where about 140,000 U.S. troops remain. Obama would like to have all the troops out by the spring of 2010. An agreement forged by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government calls for the last troops to leave by the end of 2011, though it is subject to change.

Bush did what he ‘thought was right’

WASHINGTON – Thursday night, President Bush said goodbye. Speaking for the last time to a nation he has led for eight years, he mixed his trademark confidence with a hint of contrition, acknowledging that he has “experienced setbacks” but emphasizing that he always acted in the “best interests” of the country.

Bush concedes ‘disappointments’ in final news conference

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday declared emphatically that “most people around the world, they respect America,” strongly disagreeing with the idea that the country’s moral standing suffered during his time in office. He said he did what he thought was right in facing crises from Hurricane Katrina to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, even though sometimes “things didn’t go according to plan.” At his last planned news conference before he leaves office at noon Jan. 20, Bush called Abu Ghraib “a huge disappointment,” and said finding out that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had not stockpiled weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003 was deeply frustrating as well.

U.S. opens new embassy complex

The United States inaugurated its largest embassy ever on Monday, a fortress-like compound in the heart of the Green Zone – and the most visible sign of what U.S. officials call a new chapter in relations between America and a more sovereign Iraq. U.S. Marines raised the American flag over the adobe-colored buildings, which sit on a 104-acre site and has space for 1,000 employees – more than 10 times the size of any other American Embassy in the world.

Trudy Rubin: Healing in Ameriyah

BAGHDAD – Christmas week is an appropriate time to write about a district here called Ameriyah. Eighteen months ago, Ameriyah was a hellhole where al-Qaida in Iraq ran rampant, assisted by local resistance groups and criminal gangs. It was a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood, where Shiites were expelled or murdered, along with Sunnis who didn’t cooperate with the killers. Shops were shuttered, and families were afraid to leave their houses.

Bomber targets pro-Gaza rally in Iraq

BAGHDAD – A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City on Sunday while an Iraqi died when a bicycle-riding suicide bomber blew himself up amid a mass rally against Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza. The two attacks were demonstrations of the violence that still flares up in Iraq as the government prepares to take responsibility for security from the U.S. military in a few days.

Car bombs kill 25 in Iraq

BAGHDAD – A pair of car bombs killed more than two dozen people on Saturday, shattering a recent period of calm and serving as a grim reminder that recent gains remain fragile as Iraq prepares to take over security responsibilities for much of the country. The attacks included one in the Iraqi capital – the first major attack in more than a week – that killed at least 22 people and injured 54.

Accord a milestone in U.S.-Iraq relations

BAGHDAD – America’s relationship with Iraq will undergo a sea change this week. On New Year’s Day, the status-of-forces agreement recently signed by Washington and Baghdad will take effect. From that day on, Iraq must sign off on all U.S. military operations. The accord also calls for all U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, and for all U.S. forces to leave the country “no later than Dec. 31, 2011.”

Christmas more joyous, and a holiday again in Iraq

BAGHDAD – Three years ago, a note appeared at Lita Kaseer’s door. It contained a bullet and a one-word message: “Leave.” Kaseer did flee, along with hundreds of other Christian families from the Dora neighborhood in southern Baghdad, once a vibrant Christian community.

Iraqi leader cancels visit

BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki canceled an official trip to Iran, officials said Thursday, surprising colleagues in his government. Al-Maliki’s office said the trip was postponed after officials in the two neighboring countries failed to agree on specific dates. His office had said previously the trip would follow a visit to Turkey that ended Wednesday.

In Iraq, brigade members appreciate creature comforts

First Lt. Mason McCoy hopes for just one thing for Christmas: a bit more sleep. McCoy, a member of the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade, said he and other members of Delta Company don’t lack for much at their home base in Balad, Iraq. They have the Internet and e-mail, packages from home, decent food in the dining hall and a chance to eat American fast-food on base.

Trudy Rubin: Iraq teetering on stability

BAGHDAD – Ambassador Ryan Crocker was holding his last meeting in the grand marble rooms of Saddam Hussein’s former palace, before the U.S. Embassy formally moved into new quarters and returned the building to the Iraqi government. My interview with him constituted that meeting, and the ambassador – who completes his assignment in January – was in a ruminative mood.