Two Britons killed in Iraq

Sunni politicians slain as pre-election violence escalates. Gunmen ambushed a bus Monday carrying British Muslims to Shiite shrines, killing two Britons and wounding three. The U.S. Embassy confirmed an American is missing in Iraq _ presumably one of four aid workers who disappeared over the weekend. Also Monday, two Sunni Arab politicians were slain in separate attacks _ part of an escalation of violence that U.S. and Iraqi officials predicted in advance of Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The bloodshed occurred as the trial of ousted leader Saddam Hussein for alleged crimes against humanity resumed Monday in a heavily guarded Baghdad courtroom. The trial was adjourned until Dec. 5 to allow time to find replacements for two defense lawyers who were slain and another who fled the country after he was wounded.

The attack on the pilgrims took place in the southwestern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, one of the most dangerous parts of the capital. The victims were en route to Shiite holy cities of Karbala, Najaf and Kufa, according to friends in Britain. Those killed were identified as Saifuddin Makai, 39, and Husain Mohammedali, 50, both businessmen from the London area, friends and associates said. The three wounded pilgrims were also British Muslims.

Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said authorities had no leads into the weekend disappearance of four Western humanitarian workers. No group has claimed responsibility. and details of the apparent kidnapping were unclear.

On Sunday, a Canadian official, Dan McTeague, said the four included two Canadians. Britain has said one of its citizens, retired professor Norman Kember, had vanished in Iraq but refused to say whether he was among the four. Kember is a longtime peace activist who once fretted publicly that he was taking the easy way out by protesting in safety at home while British soldiers risked their lives in Iraq.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton said only that an American had been reported missing and that the person's name and organization were being withheld. In Barcelona, Spain, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had contacted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hohshyar Zebari about Kember's abduction, and that Zebari "pledged every assistance from the Iraqi government."

Britain's Foreign Office said Sunday that it was launching an "urgent investigation" and would be in touch "with the other countries involved, the Americans and the Canadians." Although violence is expected to rise before the election, U.S. and Iraqi authorities hope the ballot will over time help calm the insurgency _ if the new parliament includes a large number of representatives from the disaffected Sunni Arab community, the backbone of the rebellion. Many Sunnis boycotted the January election, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win an overwhelming majority and sharpening communal tensions. This time, however, many leading Sunni groups are fielding candidates, and Sunni clerics are urging their followers to go to the polls.

All that could be threatened by pre-election violence. In the latest incidents, gunmen killed a senior official of Iraq's largest Sunni party and his two bodyguards as they drove Monday from Fallujah to Baghdad, the Iraqi Islamic Party said. Ayad al-Izzi, a member of the party's political bureau, was a candidate in the parliamentary election.

Ghalib al-Sideri, a public relations director for the Sunni-led Council for National Dialogue, was shot and killed Monday in southern Baghdad, police said. No group claimed responsibility for either attack. Al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has warned Sunnis against participating in the election, although political rivals could also be responsible.

Iraq was rocked by a wave of foreigner kidnappings and beheadings in 2004 and early 2005. Insurgents including al-Qaida in Iraq seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38 of them _ including three Americans. The victims included aid workers, journalists and contractors, seized in an attempt to drive foreigners out of the country or to win large ransoms.

Since May, abductions have dropped off considerably, mainly because many Western groups left Iraq and security precautions for those remaining have been tightened, with foreigners staying in barricaded compounds and moving only in heavily guarded convoys. With fewer Western targets, militants have turned to kidnapping Arab diplomats in a campaign to prevent nations from expanding relations with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

Egypt's top diplomat in Baghdad and two Algerian diplomats were kidnapped and killed in July, raising a cry of outrage across the Arab world. Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for kidnapping two employees of the Moroccan Embassy who disappeared last month, the AP reports. It later announced it had sentenced them to death for apostasy but never confirmed their execution.


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