15 Iraqi Guardsmen Feared Kidnapped

Insurgents rocketed an Iraqi military bus west of the capital Friday and 15 Iraqi soldiers were missing and feared kidnapped, as insurgent violence and intimidation escalated ahead of this month's crucial national election.

A senior American officer acknowledged that violence and threats by insurgents might keep some people in Baghdad (search) away from the Jan. 30 polls.

The bus was driving to a U.S. military post when it was struck by rocket-propelled grenades near Baghdadi, about 90 miles west of the capital, said an Iraqi National Guard officer who identified himself only as Lt. Col. Hesham.

He said the bus burst into flames but no bodies were found, raising fears the troops had been taken prisoner.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced Friday that two Marines and a 1st Infantry Division soldier were killed in separate clashes the previous day.

Iraqi police ambushed a group of gunmen in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad known as a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein (search), killing seven, police Capt. Ahmed Ismael said. The fight occurred near the Abu Hanifa mosque, whose clerics are outspoken opponents of the election.

The bus attack was the latest in a growing number of assaults on Iraqi security forces as the country prepares for balloting. Iraqis will choose a 275-member legislature in the first election since the collapse of Saddam's regime in April 2003.

The Bush administration hopes the election will be a major step in the building of a democracy and set the stage for the withdrawal of American and international military forces.

Although Iraq's long-suppressed Shiite Muslim majority is expected to vote in huge numbers, Sunni Arab clerics are urging a boycott and Sunni insurgents threaten attacks to disrupt voting, fearing the loss of power to Shiites.

Despite the threats, U.S. and other foreign troops plan to stay in the background during the balloting, turning over primary security responsibility to Iraqi forces, which have been criticized for poor performance and training.

Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, said violence could keep some Baghdad residents away from the polls.

He warned of a further surge in bombings and other violence as the election draws near and said there was no guarantee Iraqi and American forces could stop a spectacular attack causing mass casualties.

"If I told you I could guarantee that, then I'd be a fool," Hammond told reporters Friday.

In Mauritius, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said conditions for elections in Iraq were "far from ideal." He said participation by Sunni Arabs was critical to ensure the new government is truly representative and urged Iraq's interim government to "intensity its effort" to draw in Sunnis.

Attackers in Iraq's north killed three officials of a party representing Iraqi Kurds, who also are working aggressively for a high turnout in the election, which is expected to pry power from Iraq's long-dominant Sunni minority.

Gunmen also killed an Iraqi election official in western Baghdad late Thursday, police said, marking at least the seventh such killing ahead of the vote. Attackers in a passing car shot Abdul Karim Jassem Al-Ubeidi as he headed home, police said.

Sunni militants claimed on Friday that they were behind Wednesday's assassination of a Shiite community leader who had promoted the election on behalf of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Ansar al-Islam said it killed Sheik Mahmoud Finjan because he was a "big supporter of the elections."

"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 a statement posted on a Web site used by insurgents.

In Baghdad late Friday, insurgents fired two rockets near the Sadeer Hotel, which is used by Western contractors, and a third near the Ministry of Education, but caused no casualties. The blasts broke a lull of about two weeks in insurgent shelling of the city center.

Attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Iraqi police patrol in the Amiriyah district on the western edge of Baghdad. Three explosions also were heard near the main road from central Baghdad to the city's international airport, police said.

In other developments:

_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.

_Twenty-eight Iraqi prisoners escaped Thursday night as they were being transported by bus from the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad to another facility. A U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, said 38 initially got away but 10 were recaptured. He gave no further details.