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15 killed in Sunni ambush on Shi'ites near Baghdad

Attack highlights tensions amid democracy effort

BAGHDAD -- Sunni Arab militants killed 14 Shi'ite militiamen and a police officer yesterday in a clash southeast of Baghdad, another sign of rising tensions among Iraq's rival ethnic and religious communities. The US military reported three more American soldiers died in combat.

The Shi'ite-Sunni fighting occurred after police and militiamen loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr raided a house in Nahrawan, 15 miles southeast of the capital, to free a militiaman taken hostage by Sunni militants, according to Amer al-Husseini, an aide to Sadr.

After freeing the hostage and capturing two militants, the Shi'ite militiamen were ambushed by the Sunnis on their way out of the religiously mixed town, Husseini said. Police Lieutenant Thair Mahmoud said 14 others -- 12 militiamen and two policemen -- were wounded.

The attack underscores tensions among hard-line elements in Iraq's rival religious and ethnic communities at a time when the United States is struggling to promote a political process seen as key to calming the insurgency so that US and other foreign troops can go home.

Both Shi'ites and Sunnis have accused one another of kidnappings and assassinations, especially in religiously mixed Baghdad neighborhoods and farming communities south and east of the capital. Majority Shi'ites and minority Kurds generally support the Shi'ite-dominated government, while Sunni Arabs dominate the ranks of the insurgents.

Sectarian violence has complicated efforts by the United States and its coalition partners to promote a political process, which received a boost this week with the announcement that voters had approved the new constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum, despite strong opposition from the Sunni community.

Ratification paves the way for parliamentary elections Dec. 15. Some Sunni groups have decided to field candidates in the election, signaling a desire to participate in politics. Most Sunnis boycotted the last parliamentary election in January.

US officials hope Sunni participation will draw away support for the Sunni-led insurgency and allow Washington to draw down forces in Iraq before midterm elections in November next year.

The US command said two more Army soldiers were killed Wednesday when their convoy hit a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Another US soldier died Wednesday in an ambush 37 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. Four other soldiers were wounded.

The deaths raised the US military death toll to at least 2,004 since the start of the war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

US Marines also killed three insurgents in fighting yesterday in Ramadi, capital of volatile Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

With attention now focused on the December elections, Iraqi political parties are locked in intensive negotiations to put together lists of candidates, which must be submitted to the election commission by today.

Three Sunni groups have announced that they will field a joint candidate list, and the Sh'iite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which won 146 of the 275 seats in the January balloting, was meeting yesterday to try to put together a ticket.

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