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Sunni Group Claims Shiite Murder

A veteran Iraqi extremist movement claimed responsibility Friday for the killing of a community leader who was working to get out the vote on behalf of the country's top Shiite cleric, and three American troops were killed in persistent violence ahead of this month's elections.

The Sunni Muslim group of Ansar al-Islam said it singled out Sheik Mahmoud Finjan for assassination as a supporter of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and "as a big supporter of the elections."

A separate ambush in Iraq's north killed three officials of a party representing Iraq's Kurds — like the Shiites, working aggressively for a high turnout in a vote expected to pry a large measure of power from Iraq's long-dominant Sunni Muslim majority.

Finjan was one of many representatives of Sistani — Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric — working to get Iraq's suppressed Shiite Muslim majority to the polls in U.S.-backed Jan. 30 national elections.

Finjan was shot to death Wednesday as he headed home after evening prayers in a mosque at the town of Salman Pak southeast of Baghdad. Attackers also killed Finjan's son and four bodyguards.

In other developments:

  • The U.S. military reported the deaths of three U.S. troops in two provinces feared to be too violence-wracked for the Jan. 30 vote. Two Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died in action Thursday in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said in a statement. And a 1st Infantry Division soldier died while supporting Task Force Olympia operations around the volatile northern city of Mosul the same day, the military said. American forces gave no details.
  • An Iraqi bus collided with a U.S. tank that was on patrol Friday, killing six of the bus passengers and injuring eight, the U.S. military said. The minibus carrying Iraqi passengers had moved into the lane for oncoming traffic to try to pass a slow vehicle, said Maj. Neal O'Brien, spokesman for the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division.
  • A senior election official estimates that half of Iraq's 15 million eligible voters will take part in this month's national election and says that to encourage a high turnout, those living in insurgency-racked areas will be allowed to vote in safer communities. Farid Ayar of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission said he expected 7 to 8 million Iraqis to vote on Jan. 30 in a ballot seen as a major step toward fulfilling U.S. goals of building democracy here after decades of Saddam Hussein's tyranny.
  • U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that conditions for elections in Iraq were not ideal, and that Iraqi officials should intensify efforts to make them all-inclusive. "It is clear that the vast majority of Iraqis are eager to exercise their democratic right to vote," he told journalists. "But it is equally obvious that the conditions in which the election is being held are far from ideal."

    The attacks were the latest blamed on Sunni extremists in what's expected to be an escalating campaign of violence aimed at intimidating would-be voters.

    "We ... call upon all brother citizens not to participate in the elections because we are going to attack voting centers," Ansar al-Islam said in the statement claiming responsibility, renewing Sunni extremist demands for a vote boycott. The message was posted on a Web site used by insurgents.

    Established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ansar al-Islam is one of Iraq's older extremist groups — predating even the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein. The group has been linked to al-Qaida.

    One of its offshoots, Ansar al-Sunnah, has emerged in recent months as the deadliest homegrown Iraqi group.

    Attacks claimed by Ansar al-Sunnah include a December suicide bombing that killed 22 people, mostly Americans, at a U.S. military mess tent in the northern city of Mosul; the August executions of 12 Nepalese construction workers; and twin suicide bombings in February that killed 109 members of Iraq's assertive Kurd minority.

    Many Sunni Muslim leaders say Iraq remains too violent to allow for a free election and have urged its postponement.

    In Mosul Thursday, gunmen ambushed a car carrying officials of the Kurdish Democratic Party, killing three of them, another party official said. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani is one of two main factions of Iraq's Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

    Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, dominated by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority since the Ottoman era, have been fervent supporters of the Jan. 30 vote, which will seat a temporary government charged with writing a post-Saddam Hussein constitution and overseeing new elections under it.

    Anbar and Mosul's province of Ninevah are two of four provinces conceded by U.S. ground force commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz to be potentially too dangerous for significant voter participation.

    The four, among 18 total provinces in Iraq, hold nearly a quarter of Iraq's 26 million people.

    In the north, police arrested four people Friday after finding machine guns and rockets packed into their car. The suspected insurgents were pulled over and searched on a road near the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, police Brig. Sarhat Qadir said in Kirkuk.

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