Iraq’s electoral commission announced the planned closure, saying the move was necessary to prevent infiltration by militants intent on sabotage.

Only pilgrims returning from the Hajj in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to cross.

In an attempt to prevent car bombings near election booths, only vehicles with official permits will be allowed on the roads over the same period.

Car bombs driven by suicide attackers have become a feature of the insurgency against US-backed authorities.

A suicide car bomber killed two people in an attack on the Baghdad offices of a leading Shiite party on Tuesday, while 11 other Iraqis were killed in further unrest.

After being denied access to a building used by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a mainstream Shiite religious party, the bomber detonated the device.

Al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to a statement posted on the Internet.

On December 27th, a suicide car bomb claimed by Zarqawi killed 13 people outside SCIRI’s office.

In the countdown to elections, Sunni Arab rebels have escalated their attacks on Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority.

Sunni clerics have called for a boycott of the vote and Sunni insurgents have threatened to attack polling stations during the elections.

Analysts believe Shia Iraqis, who make up 60 percent of the population, will win the election by force of numbers.

And Interior Minister Falah Naqib warned Iraq risked sliding into civil war if the minority opts not to take part.

“Failing to take part in the elections is tantamount to treason and will lead to a civil war and the division of the country,” said the minister, himself a Sunni, told reporters.

The top US commander in Iraq, General George W. Casey, gave a similarly gloomy prognosis, saying election day violence was unavoidable despite the coalition’s best efforts.

In another act of violence, a candidate on Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s parliamentary list, Alaa Hamid Nasseh, was assassinated in the southern port of Basra.

And a roadside bomb killed a US soldier in Baghdad on Tuesday, raising the number of American troops killed since the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein 1,074.

In a separate incident, eight Chinese workers have been kidnapped by insurgents who accuse them of having “worked with US forces in Iraq.”

In a video tape aired by the Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera, the group is surrounded by hooded gunmen who threaten to kill the eight within 48 hours unless Beijing “clarifies its role in Iraq”.

Chinese news agency Xinhua said the captives were construction workers on a project to rebuild an Iraqi plant.

Xinhua quoted embassy officials in Baghdad as saying they were making all efforts to rescue the hostages, who it said went missing last week while travelling to Jordan.

There was no immediate reaction from the Chinese government.

Meanwhile in the main northern city of Mosul, a Syrian Catholic archbishop was released 24 hours after being kidnapped by gunmen.

66-year-old Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, leader of Mosul’s Syrian Catholic community, is reported to be in good health after being thrown out of a speeding car in Mosul on Tuesday.

Baghdad Archbishop Matti Matoka, who ruled out any political motivation behind the abduction, had said earlier the kidnappers demanded US$200,000.

The Vatican said no ransom was paid and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The reason for the kidnapping was unclear but Christians, tens of thousands of whom live in and around Mosul, have been subjected to attacks in the past.

Christians make up just three per cent of Iraq’s 26 million people.

A spokesman for one of the main Christian political parties suggested the abduction might have been an attempt to intimidate the community into staying at home on polling day.

“It could be an attack on Christians who are willing to participate in the elections,” said Assyrian Democratic Movement spokesman William Warda.’

Hundreds of prominent Iraqis, especially politicians, doctors, lawyers and professors, have been kidnapped by ransom-seeking criminal gangs in recent months.

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