Iraq: 4 U.S. soldiers killed

On the last day of campaigning in Iraq, gunmen assassinated a Sunni candidate for parliament, a Shia politician escaped injury in a bombing south of Baghdad, and a roadside bomb near the capital killed four U.S. soldiers.Despite yesterday's violence, more than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious decree instructing their followers to vote tomorrow, boosting U.S. hopes the election will encourage more members of the disaffected minority to abandon the insurgency.

A U.S. military statement said four soldiers from Task Force Baghdad died in a blast northwest of the capital, but did not specify the location. That brought to at least 2,149 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the start of the war in 2003.At least 12 of the 15 U.S. soldiers who have died since Dec. 8 were killed in the Baghdad area, according to U.S. military records.

Elsewhere, gunmen killed Sunni Arab candidate Mezher al-Dulaimi as he was filling his car at a gas station in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 112 kilometres west of Baghdad. Mr. al-Dulaimi took part in a conference in November in Cairo that was attended by representatives of Iraq's major factions.

Prominent Shia politician Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer escaped injury when a bomb exploded near his convoy in Latifiyah, about 30 kilometres south of Baghdad. No one in his party was injured, but one vehicle was damaged, police said.

The attacks occurred on the second anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein, an event hailed at the time as a turning point in an insurgency that actually grew in wake of the arrest. Now hopes are pinned on the election as pressure mounts on U.S. President George W. Bush to bring an end to the conflict.

Iraqis will choose a 275-member parliament to serve for the next four years. The Bush administration hopes the election will draw a large turnout among Sunni Arabs and produce a government that can win the trust of the community that is the backbone of the insurgency.

Iraqis living outside the country began voting yesterday in the United States, Canada and 13 other countries, including neighbouring Iran. In Canada, Iraqi expatriates are voting in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary.

"We are very happy. This is the day for our generation," Nusredin Kestay said as he prepared to vote in Nashville. "We can talk now and say what we want."Ali al-Lami, executive director of the Iraqi Electoral Commission, appealed for peace tomorrow, when about 15 million people will be eligible to vote in more than 6,200 polling stations across Iraq.

U.S. officials hope a strong Sunni voice in the next parliament would help calm the insurgency. That would in turn allow the United States and its coalition partners to begin bringing their troops home next year, reports the AP. I.L.

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