Before the polls which US President George W. Bush said were “changing the world” got under way inside Iraq, expatriates seized the chance to take part in the first vote since Saddam Hussein was toppled almost 22 months ago.

“I am hopeful, based on the evidence that we see, we are moving closer and closer to decimating and eliminating that threat from our country,” Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said after the announcement that three more Zarqawi aides had been captured.

The three Zarqawi operatives arrested included his commander for Baghdad who had met with the top militant more than 40 times in the past three months, officials said.

“His organisation is crumbling as security forces continue their efforts to kill or capture him”, National Security Adviser Qassem Daoud said.

US Brigadier General Erv Lessel said that more than two dozen insurgents, mainly Zarqawi followers, had been arrested around Baghdad in the past month.

Zarqawi, who has a 25-million-dollar US bounty on his head, has pledged to wreck Sunday’s election with a wave of deadly violence calculated to keep voters at home.

Despite the arrests and tight security in all of Iraq’s provinces, insurgents pressed their campaign of intimidation, killing at least eight Iraqis and five US soldiers, and attacking several polling stations.

Four people were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle at a power station in the southern Baghdad neighbourhood of Dura, police and medics said.

An Iraqi policeman was killed in the ethnically divided northern oil centre of Kirkuk, while an Iraqi soldier died when his vehicle hit a mine near the Sunni rebel bastion of Samarra.

West of the capital, the bullet-riddled bodies of six Iraqi soldiers were found dumped in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, a day after four troops’ corpses were discovered in the city.

A US helicopter also crashed in the Baghdad area, two days after the crash of a transport helicopter left 31 US troops dead, inflicting on the US military its heaviest loss in a single incident since the March 2003 invasion.

Three soldiers were killed and another wounded in the explosion of a makeshift bomb in a western district of Baghdad.

Another two soldiers were killed and three wounded on Friday in two separate incidents in the capital, bringing to 1,412 the total number of US servicemen who have died in Iraqi since the invasion almost two years ago.

The Iraqi authorities have imposed tight security across the country, with night-time curfews in force and restrictions on vehicle movement in some areas.

In Baghdad and other cities, people rushed to shops and supermarkets to stock up on essential goods in anticipation of escalating violence in the final run-up to polling day.

Iraq will cut itself from the rest of the world this weekend with both land borders and Baghdad international airport closed.

Despite the threat of reprisals against poll organizers, electoral staff pressed on with final preparations.

The campaign ended on Friday morning but political and religious leaders in Iraq and abroad continued to urge voters to brave security threats and turn out in force.

“This history is changing the world, because the advent of democracy in Iraq will serve as a powerful example to reformers throughout the entire Middle East,” President Bush said at the swearing-in for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The terrorists understand that as well. And that is why they are now attacking Iraqi civilians in an effort to sabotage elections. We applaud the courage of ordinary Iraqis for their refusal to surrender their future to these killers,” he said.

An estimated 14.1 million people are eligible to vote but the turnout at some 5,300 polling stations is in doubt, both because of the threats of violence and because of boycott calls from leading Sunni politicians and clerics.

Iraqi expatriates faced no such danger as they cast the first votes in the election for a 275-member national assembly charged with drawing up a post-Saddam constitution.

In a sign that Europe would also lend its support to an elected government, the European Commission proposed a 200-million-dollar aid package for Iraq.

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