In twin attacks targeting Iraq's major Shiite Muslim cities, car bombs in Najaf and Karbala killed at least 60 people yesterday, threatening to inflame sectarian anger as the nation...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — In twin attacks targeting Iraq’s major Shiite Muslim cities, car bombs in Najaf and Karbala killed at least 60 people yesterday, threatening to inflame sectarian anger as the nation prepares for next month’s legislative election.

In a separate ambush in Baghdad, heavily armed men attacked a car carrying employees of Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission, dragging three of the workers out of the vehicle and executing them in the street in front of scores of rush-hour drivers.

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The attacks appeared to be the latest attempt by insurgents to provoke chaos and instability before the Jan. 30 vote.

“We blame the extremists, fundamentalists and remnants of the old regime,” said Mohammed Hussein Hakim, one of Najaf’s top Shiite clerics. “They are trying to bait a sectarian conflict and create a state of terror among the Iraqi people.”

Shiites, who represent about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, have been among the leading proponents of elections. Led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the long-oppressed Shiite community is optimistic that the election will allow them to assume a major role in governing Iraq.

The insurgency is largely made up of Sunni Muslims, who lost power after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and have been threatening to boycott elections. They and the ethnic Kurds in the north each account for about 20 percent of the population.

APTN / AP

Iraqis crowd into a central square in Najaf yesterday, in this image made from television, after a car bomb exploded. Victims included women and children seeking treatment at nearby medical offices.

The persistent insurgent violence has already raised questions over whether residents of central and northern Iraq, where violence has been more frequent, will be able to vote. If attacks scare away voters in the south as well, it would further undermine the validity of the first national ballot since Saddam was ousted.

Election officials vowed to continue their work.

“We won’t be frightened by a few terrorists,” said Abdul Hussein Hendawi, head of the commission charged with supervising the election. “These inhumane crimes do not represent the Iraqi people.”

The attack in Baghdad brings to nine the number of election workers killed so far, Hendawi said. Two were slain Saturday when a mortar hit their office in Dujail, a town about 50 miles north of the capital.

The car bombs in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq struck within two hours of one another yesterday afternoon, each exploding near the cities’ gold-domed shrines, which rank among the holiest sites in Islam.

The second and more deadly was on a narrow street in Najaf where dozens of clinics and doctors offices are located, about 300 yards from the Imam Ali Shrine. Among the victims were patients seeking treatment, including many women and children, witnesses said. Hospital officials said 47 were killed and 90 wounded in the explosion.

The car bomb in Karbala exploded near a bus station, killing 13 and injuring 30. The blast ignited a row of minibuses and left a 5-foot crater in the asphalt.

It was Karbala’s second bombing in a week. On Wednesday, a bomb exploded at the nearby Imam Hussein Shrine, killing eight people and wounding 40 in an apparent attempt to kill a top aide to al-Sistani.

The attack on the election workers occurred in one of Baghdad’s oldest and most dangerous neighborhoods. More than 30 gunmen, unmasked and apparently unafraid to show their faces, ran rampant over Haifa Street, a main downtown thoroughfare. They swarmed the car carrying five election workers before pulling three of the workers into the street, officials said.

An Associated Press photographer captured pictures of the attack, showing one election worker lying on the ground as a gunman aimed a pistol at his head. A second election worker, cowering on his knees nearby, was shot seconds later, AP reported.

The employees were identified as Hatem Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a lawyer and deputy director for one of the commission’s offices in Baghdad, and two of his office employees, Mahdi Sbeih and Samy Moussa.

The two other workers escaped the attack, though it was not immediately clear how.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.