Sunnis Protest 'Cheating' in Elections; Two U.S. Soldiers Killed

Large demonstrations broke out across the country Friday to denounce parliamentary elections that protesters called rigged in favor of the main religious Shiite coalition.

In Baghdad, unknown assailants kidnapped a Sudanese diplomat and five other men as they left prayers at a mosque, a spokesman for Sudan's Foreign Ministry said. An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said he had not heard of the abduction.

As many as 20,000 people demonstrated after noon prayers in southern Baghdad Friday, many carrying banners decrying last week's elections. Many Iraqis outside the religious Shiite coalition allege that the elections were unfair to smaller Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups.

"We refuse the cheating and forgery in the elections," one banner read.

Sheik Mahmoud al-Sumaidaei of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni clerical group, told followers during Friday prayers at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque that they were "living a conspiracy built on lies and forgery."

"You have to be ready during these hard times and combat forgeries and lies for the sake of Islam," he said.

The U.S. military said two soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad Friday. No other details were released. At least 2,163 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jamal Mohammed Ibrahim said that among the six Sudanese nationals kidnapped Friday were four employees at the country's diplomatic mission in Baghdad, including a diplomat identified as Abdel Moneam Mohammad Tom.

One employee managed to call the Sudanese mission briefly on his cell phone immediately after the kidnapping and talk to the charge d'affaires, Ibrahim said in a telephone call to The Associated Press in Cairo. But so far there had been no contact with the kidnappers, he said.

"We don't know who they are or what their demands are," he said.

Last month, a top adviser to Sudan's president joined the Arab League's secretary general in arranging an Iraqi reconciliation conference in Cairo. Sudan has been planning to push for a larger reconciliation conference in Baghdad.

Gunmen have kidnapped more than 240 foreigners and killed at least 39 since the Iraqi insurgency began after U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.

The kidnapping of Arab diplomats has been particularly embarrassing to the Iraqi government, which has been pressing Arab states to return ambassadors to Baghdad.

Arab governments have been reluctant to raise their diplomatic missions to full strength because of the insecurity.

In July, two Algerian diplomats and an Egyptian diplomat were abducted and killed in Baghdad. The Al-Qaida in Iraq group claimed responsibility.

Sunni Arab and secular Shiite factions had demanded Thursday that an international body review election fraud complaints, and threatened to boycott the new legislature. The United Nations rejected the idea.

Their demand came two days after preliminary returns indicated that the current governing group, the religious Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, was getting bigger-than-expected majorities in Baghdad, which has large numbers of Shiites and Sunnis.

On Friday, more than 2,000 people demonstrated in Mosul, where some accused Iran of having a hand in election fraud. About 1,000 people demonstrated in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.

The former leader claimed at his trial this week that he had been beaten by his American captors.

Defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said Friday that he had seen marks on his client's body. Speaking in Amman, Jordan, Dulaimi said that he had filed a complaint Thursday with the court hearing Saddam's case.

The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, told The Associated Press on Friday that he hadn't seen a complaint but planned to visit Saddam and his seven co-defendants to review their health and "listen to their demands and supply them with everything they need."

Meanwhile, gunmen Friday attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint in the city of Adhaim, in religiously and ethnically mixed Diyala province, killing eight soldiers and wounding seventeen, an Iraqi army officer said on condition he not be identified for fear of reprisal.

"There were too many to count," said Akid, a 20-year-old soldier from Diwanayah being treated for gunshot wounds to both thighs.

Akid, who would only give his first name for fear of reprisal, said his battalion of about 600 men had already suffered over 250 desertions after a Dec. 3 ambush in Adhaim killed 19 Iraqi soldiers.

"They gave up," he said.

In Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt outside a Shiite mosque, killing four people and wounding eight, Diyala police said. Among the dead was a policeman guarding the mosque.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that President Bush had authorized new cuts in U.S. combat troops in Iraq, below the 138,000 level that prevailed for most of this year. Rumsfeld did not reveal the exact size of the troop cut, but Pentagon officials have said as many as 7,000 combat troops could be leaving.

Criticisms of last week's elections are seen by some as jockeying for position by both Sunnis and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, before negotiations on forming a new coalition government begin. No group is expected to win a majority of the legislature's 275 seats.

The formerly dominant Sunni minority fears being marginalized by the Shiite majority, which was oppressed during Saddam's reign.