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Top Sunni Leader, Family Members Killed

Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms burst into the home of a Sunni Arab sheik Wednesday, killing him, three of his sons and a son-in-law in an attack police said may have been aimed at discouraging members of the minority from participating in next month's election.

Khadim Sarhid al-Hemaiyem, who lived on the outskirts of Baghdad, was the leader of a branch of the Dulaimi tribe, one of the biggest in Iraq. His brother is a candidate in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, three of his sons had been policemen and another son was slain last month north of the capital, police and family members said.

Elsewhere, an American soldier from Task Force Baghdad died of a gunshot wound Wednesday in the center of the capital, the U.S. military said. At least 2,108 death U.S. service members have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to the Department of Defense.

The brutal attack on the sheik and his family took place amid a major campaign by U.S. and Iraqi authorities to encourage Sunni Arabs to vote next month in hopes of luring them away from the insurgency.

Some insurgent groups have declared a boycott of the election and have threatened politicians who participate. Police said they suspected the sheik's death was designed as a warning to Sunni Arabs against heeding the U.S. call.

However, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a hard-line Sunni organization believed to have links to insurgents, condemned the slayings and linked them to what many fear is a campaign against Sunnis by the Shiite-led government security services.

"We warn the government against continuing with this tyranny," association spokesman Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi said.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's biggest Sunni political group, also condemned the assassination and demanded that the Defense Ministry "control its forces and punish the perpetrators."

Police Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi denied that government forces were involved in the killings and blamed the insurgents.

"Surely, they are outlaw insurgents. As for the military uniform, they can be bought from many shops in Baghdad," he said, adding that several police and army vehicles had been stolen and could be used in raids.

The United States hopes that a big Sunni turnout next month will produce a broad-based government that can win the minority's trust, helping to take the steam out of the Sunni-led insurgency and hasten the day when American and other foreign troops can go home.

Many Sunnis, who comprise about 20 percent of Iraq's 27 million people but were dominant under Saddam Hussein, boycotted the January election, enabling rival Shiites and Kurds to dominate the transitional government, a development that heightened tensions.

At the same time, U.S. military commanders have warned that insurgents will probably escalate attacks in hopes of undermining the election.

In other election-related violence, gunmen blocked the road leading to the Communist Party's branch office in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City, broke into the party building late Tuesday and killed two activists.

"The government should bear the responsibility of providing the necessary protection in order to ensure a safe atmosphere for the elections," the party said Wednesday in a statement.

Despite the violence, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said he was encouraged by the political progress so far in Iraq.

Lieberman, who arrived Wednesday in Baghdad to spend Thanksgiving with U.S. troops, told Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that American forces will remain in Iraq until their mission is complete, despite growing unease in Congress about the conflict.

"We cannot let extremists and terrorists, a small number, here in Iraq deprive the 27 million Iraqis of what they want, which is a better freer life, safer life for themselves and their children," Lieberman said.

The Connecticut Democrat, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the cost of success in Iraq would be high "but the cost for America of failure in Iraq would be catastrophic — for America, for the Iraqi people and I believe for the world."

Meanwhile, a U.S. official said he expected defense lawyers in Saddam's trial to attend Monday's session, despite their threat to boycott the proceedings after two members of their team were killed.

The official told reporters at a briefing that the court has "standby" defense lawyers to step in if the team makes good on its threat to boycott the hearing, the first since the trial opened Oct. 19. Defense lawyers have demanded protection for themselves and their families, as well as a U.N. investigation of the killings of the two lawyers.

In Brussels, Belgium, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, a group representing European lawyers, urged Iraqi authorities to move the trial to another country for security reasons.

The Iraqi government had no immediate comment on the appeal, but authorities here have rejected earlier suggestions to move the trial.

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