BAGHDAD (AFP) — Gunmen claimed the lives of three Iraqi election candidates on Thursday and two campaign workers were also murdered in attacks just two days before the country's first poll since 2005.
The run-up to Saturday's provincial vote -- seen as a key test of Iraq's progress since the 2003 US-led invasion -- had been relatively violence-free but the killings are certain to raise fears that militants could throw polling day into chaos.
The first attack occurred in Baghdad, where armed men opened fire on Omar Faruq al-Ani, a candidate for the Iraqi Concord Front, the main Sunni group in the country's parliament, police and army officials told AFP.
The second victim, Hazim Salim Ahmed, a Sunni candidate for the Iraqi National Unity list, was shot dead outside his home in the northern city of Mosul.
Political parties have been requesting greater security for candidates and on voting day in Mosul, which is considered to be the last urban stronghold of Al-Qaeda.
A third candidate from the Reform and Development list, a mixed Sunni, Kurd and Shiite party, was killed along with two campaign workers as they were putting up election posters near the central city of Baquba, a local security official said.
The men, including candidate Abbas Farhan Al-Jubouri, a former army general during the reign of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, were working in a district considered to be a holdout of the Qaeda insurgency, police said.
Iraq has in the past year seen a dramatic improvement in security, but American and Iraqi military commanders have in recent days warned of attacks by insurgents ahead of the election.
Tens of thousands of police and soldiers will guard Saturday's ballot, when about 15 million Iraqis are expected to vote in 14 out of 18 provinces.
The vote is expected to see Sunni Arabs turn out in force in a reversal of the 2005 parliamentary elections and is also being seen as a quasi-referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Sunni Arabs boycotted the last legislative election in December 2005, allowing Shiite and Kurdish parties to take control of parliament, but Sunnis are expected to take part on Saturday in large numbers.
The stability of Iraq has been at the forefront of new US President Barack Obama's early moves on foreign policy, as he is keen to redeploy American soldiers to Afghanistan which he sees as the front line against Al-Qaeda.
The recent improvement in security in Iraq followed the success of the American military's 2007 "surge", which saw a large increase in US troop numbers and began to neutralise fierce Sunni and Shiite sectarianism that had threatened to spiral into all-out civil war.
The run-up to to the election in 2005 was bloody, with 60 Iraqis dying a day. Last month the average was 10.
Provincial councils are responsible for nominating governors who lead the administration, finance and reconstruction projects in their areas, controlling a combined budget of 2.4 billion dollars.
The United Nations and Iraq's Independent High Election Commission is organising the elections, with 800 international observers expected to oversee the balloting.
The vote will not include the three autonomous Kurdish provinces -- Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, all in the north.
Elections have been postponed in the oil-rich Kirkuk province, which the Kurds want to incorporate despite fierce opposition by the central government.
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