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Two Contractors, One Soldier Killed in Iraq

Two American security contractors were killed and a third wounded in a roadside bomb attack south of the Iraqi capital, the U.S. Embassy (search) said Sunday.

The three were working for Blackwater Security (search), a North Carolina-based contracting firm that provides security for U.S. State Department (search) officials in Iraq. They were attacked on the main road to Hillah, south of Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan said.

In other violence, a U.S. soldier was gunned down late Saturday in a small arms fire attack in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, the U.S. command said Sunday.

The death brought to at least 1,514 the number of members of the U.S. military who've died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Foreign contractors, too, are often targeted by anti-U.S. guerrillas. At least 232 American civilian security and reconstruction contractors were killed in Iraq up to the end of 2004, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution (search).

The Blackwater employees killed Saturday were believed to be traveling in a black Chevrolet Suburban, a foreign security official in Baghdad said on condition of anonymity. The road south of Baghdad traverses an area known as the "Triangle of Death" because of the frequency of insurgent attacks.

"I can confirm that two American employees of Blackwater Security were killed early yesterday afternoon on the road to Hillah when an IED exploded next to their vehicle, Callahan said Sunday.

An IED is a military acronym for an improvised explosive device, or homemade bomb.

Officials at Blackwater's headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, could not be reached for comment.

In March 2004, four Blackwater employees were killed in the turbulent city of Fallujah, and two of the corpses were hung from a bridge, triggering a bloody three-week siege of the restive Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad soon afterward.

Meanwhile, Ukraine withdrew 150 servicemen from Iraq on Saturday, beginning a gradual pullout. The Ukrainian company that was based near Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, left Iraq and was expected to return home by Tuesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said.

Earlier this month, President Viktor Yushchenko and top defense officials ordered a phased withdrawal of Ukraine's 1,650-strong contingent from the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Ukraine has lost 17 soldiers in Iraq and the deployment is deeply unpopular among people in the former Soviet republic.

Bulgarian military investigators, meanwhile, said U.S. troops who killed a Bulgarian soldier had fired without warning but did not "deliberately" kill Pvt. Gardi Gardev on March 4.

The shooting occurred the same day U.S. forces killed an Italian intelligence agent and wounded an Italian journalist who had been held for a month as a hostage of insurgents, straining relations with two of the Bush administration's rare European partners in Iraq.

In political developments, the country's main Shiite and Kurdish coalitions were putting the finishing touches on an agreement they hope to sign on Monday forming a coalition government. Any U.S. exit strategy hinges on having a new government organize Iraq's army and police to take over responsibility for security.

A senior member of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, Ahmad Chalabi, traveled late Friday to Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, for talks with Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader who is slated to become Iraq's next president.

The Kurds have agreed that conservative Islamic Dawa party leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari will be Iraq's prime minister.

"There is discussion and there is an agreement on the basic principles. But there is not final agreement on all the details. This visit was on invitation by Talabani to Chalabi. The atmosphere was positive," said alliance member Ali al-Faisal.

Kurds and alliance officials said both sides agreed that Iraq would not become an Islamic state, a desire also expressed by the country's most powerful Shiite cleric — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said the Kurds would oppose any attempt to turn Iraq into an Islamic state.

"I think the Shiites well understand that implementing an Islamic government ... will bring a lot of problems," Barzani told Dubai's Al-Arabiya television. "We have an alliance with the Shiites. We were both oppressed, and we both struggled against the old regime, but if they insist on having a religious government we will oppose to them."

An alliance member, Ali al-Dabagh, said there were no plans to turn Iraq into a religious state or a secular one.

"We neither want to establish a religious nor a secular state in Iraq, we want a state that respects the identity of the Iraqi people and the identities of others" al-Dabagh said.

The Kurds won 75 seats in the 275-member National Assembly during Jan. 30 elections. The alliance won 140 seats and needs Kurdish support to assemble the two-thirds majority to elect a president, who will then give a mandate to the prime minister.