Militants abducted three senior Iraqi officials, beheaded a man who worked for the U.S. military and killed at least four others, officials said Saturday, a day after a U.S. general warned that insurgents may be planning "horrific" attacks ahead of Jan. 30 elections.
Meanwhile, Shiite and Sunni religious leaders voiced sharply divergent views on whether the vote should be held at all.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy chief of staff for strategic communications in Iraq, said Friday the United States has no intelligence indicating specific plots. But he said American leaders expected a rise in attacks.
"I think a worst case is where they have a series of horrific attacks that cause mass casualties in some spectacular fashion in the days leading up to the elections," Lessel said.
"If you look over the last six months, they have steadily escalated the barbaric nature of the attacks they have been committing. A year ago, you didn't see these kinds of horrific things," he said.
In Washington, President Bush said the elections will be "an incredibly hopeful experience" despite rising violence and doubts that the vote will bring stability and democracy.
"I know it's hard but it's hard for a reason," Bush said. He acknowledged security problems in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The comments came amid an escalating insurgency believed to be led by minority Sunnis who dominated the country during Saddam Hussein's (search) regime. In the election — the first democratic vote in Iraq since the country was formed in 1932 — the Sunnis are certain to lose their dominance to the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
Reflecting Shiites' demands to hold the vote as scheduled and Sunnis' calls for a boycott or postponement, two senior religious leaders expressed sharply differing views during Friday prayers.
"We want all the Iraqis to participate, we also insist on holding the elections as scheduled and to put these elections behind us as a way to end the conflict in Iraq," Saadr Aldeen al-Qubbanji, a leader of a prominent Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said in the southern city of Najaf (search).
"We all want elections, but we are seeking fair and free elections," Sheik Mahmoud Al-Somaidie of the Sunnis' Association of Muslim Scholars said in Baghdad. "Those of us who are calling for postponement are seeking that for the benefit of the country. Elections have to be an Iraqi demand, not the demand of the foreign countries."
The United States insists on holding the vote as planned, and strongly opposes a postponement.
This week has seen a string of assassinations, suicide car bombings and other assaults that killed nearly 100 people, mostly Iraqi security troops, who are seen by the militants as collaborators with the American occupiers.
Authorities in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit said Saturday that gunmen abducted a deputy governor of a central Iraqi province and two other senior officials as they traveled to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most prominent Shiite leader, in the holy city of Najaf to discuss national elections.
The delegation was stopped and the members kidnapped about 40 miles south of Baghdad on Friday. The area is in the so-called "triangle of death," a string of Sunni-controlled towns that have been the scene of frequent attacks.
In Baqouba, insurgents beheaded a translator who was working with the U.S. army after breaking into his house, police said Saturday. An Iraqi policeman was killed by masked gunmen as he was leaving his house the southern Dora neighborhood of Baghdad.
A booby-trapped car blew up Saturday at a gas station in Mahaweel, about 35 miles south of Baghdad. One man was killed and several others were injured, police said.
In Baghdad's western neighborhood of Khadraa, gunmen shot dead Abboud Khalaf al-Lahibi, deputy secretary-general of the National Front for Iraqi tribes — a group representing several Iraqi tribes — his aide, Ibrahim al-Farhan, said. A bodyguard was killed and three others wounded in the attack, he said.
On Friday, a U.S. soldier was killed in a non-hostile vehicle accident in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said. The incident is under investigation, and the Marine's name was being withheld pending notification of the family.
Lessel said he expects the insurgents would escalate attacks before the election, and that the incidents would probably decline after the vote.
"What the terrorists fear most is a simple piece of paper called a ballot," he said. "They fear the election. I think successful elections will have a significant impact on the insurgents."