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Four GIs Killed in Iraq; Early Voting Continues

On the last day of campaigning, a roadside bomb killed four American soldiers Tuesday and gunmen assassinated a candidate for parliament in this week's election. A Shiite politician escaped injury in a bombing south of Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador, meanwhile, said Tuesday the total number of abused prisoners found so far in jails run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry came to about 120. The statement by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reinforced Sunni Arab claims of mistreatment by security forces — a major issue among Sunnis in the election campaign.

Despite the violence, more than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious decree instructing their followers to vote Thursday, boosting American hopes the election will encourage more members of the disaffected minority to abandon the insurgency.

A U.S. military statement said four soldiers from Task Force Baghdad died in a blast northwest of the capital, but did not specify the location. That brought to at least 2,149 the number of U.S. service members to have died since the start of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

At least 12 of the 15 American soldiers who have died since Dec. 8 were killed in the Baghdad area, according to U.S. military records.

Elsewhere, gunmen killed Sunni Arab candidate Mezher al-Dulaimi as he was filling his car at a gas station in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. Al-Dulaimi took part in a conference last month in Cairo that was attended by representatives of Iraq's major factions.

A prominent Shiite politician, Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, escaped injury Tuesday when a bomb exploded near his convoy in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. No one in al-Sagheer's party was injured but one vehicle was damaged, police said.

The attacks occurred on the second anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein, an event hailed at the time as a turning point in an insurgency which actually grew in wake of the arrest. Now hopes are pinned on Thursday's election as pressure mounts on President Bush to bring an end to the conflict.

Iraqis will choose a 275-member parliament to serve for the next four years. The Bush administration hopes the election will draw a large turnout among Sunni Arabs and produce a government that can win the trust of the community that is the backbone of the insurgency.

Iraqis living outside the country began voting Tuesday in the United States and 14 other countries.

"We are very happy. This is the day for our generation," Nusredin Kestay said as he prepared to vote in Nashville, Tenn. "We can talk now and say what we want."

Ali al-Lami, executive director of the Iraqi Electoral Commission, appealed for peace Thursday, when about 15 million people will be eligible to vote in more than 6,200 polling stations across Iraq.

U.S. officials hope a strong Sunni voice in the next parliament could help calm the insurgency. That would in turn allow the United States and its coalition partners to begin bringing their troops home next year.

Many Sunnis boycotted the January election, enabling rival Shiites and Kurds to win most of the parliamentary seats — a development that sharpened communal tensions and fueled the insurgency.

In an encouraging sign, more than 1,000 Sunni clerics issued a religious edict, or a fatwa, on Tuesday urging their followers to vote.

"We call upon all the Iraqi people, and this is a fatwa from more than 1,000 Iraqi scholars who are urging Iraqis to vote," Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie said on Al-Arabiya television. "We hope, God willing, that Iraqis will not miss the opportunity to vote and to avoid being marginalized."

While some prominent clerics with links to the insurgency have avoided calling on their followers to vote, the edict is likely to encourage many Sunnis to go to the polls.

"I appreciate the statements made by political and religious leaders calling on Sunni Arabs to participate and on insurgents to cease military operations," Ambassador Khalilzad told reporters. "I believe that the next government will be more representative."

On prisoner abuse, the ambassador said "over 100" of the detainees found last month at an Interior Ministry jail in Baghdad's Jadriyah district were suffering signs of abuse. An additional "21 or 26 people" were found three days ago at another Interior Ministry lockup, he said.

Khalilzad said the United States would "accelerate the investigation" to determine who was responsible for abuses — a longtime Sunni Arab demand.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a prominent insurgent group, said Tuesday it would not attack polling stations. But it vowed to continue its war against U.S.-led coalition forces.

"To the heroes of the Islamic Army in Iraq: Orders have been issued to avoid polling stations centers to preserve the blood of innocent people," the statement posted on an Islamist Web site said. However, the group said the order did not signal "our support for the political process."

On Monday, five Islamic militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, also promised not to try to disrupt the voting, even though it branded the election a "satanic project."

Coalition and Iraqi forces will be out in strength Thursday to protect voters. Borders and airports have been closed, the nighttime curfew extended and use of private vehicles has been banned during the balloting.

In the northern city of Mosul, bomb-sniffing dogs checked polling stations Tuesday for explosives. Once the sites were deemed secure, Iraqi police took control of the buildings while U.S. troops placed concrete barriers on nearby roads.

U.S. cargo trucks delivered election materials as well as food and water for the police and soldiers responsible for guarding the polling stations. Ballots were to arrive only after election commission personnel were at the site, where they would remain until after the vote.

"Everything is on track and going very well," said Lt. Col. John Norris of Louisville, Ky., commander of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.

On the final day of campaigning, major political blocs held their last rallies before the election. Most campaigning has been limited to billboards, posters and media ads because of security risks.

About 1,000 people turned out in the southern city of Basra for a rally staged by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi hosted a gathering in Baghdad.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told about 1,000 tribal leaders in Baghdad that the military wing of his group — the Badr Brigade — was ready to help with election security.

"I declare that the Badr Organization is ready to mobilize 200,000 of its men in all parts of Iraq so that they can play a role in defending Iraqi and Iraqis," said the black-turbaned cleric, who heads the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance slate.