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Military helicopters crash

Four soldiers killed in northern Iraq

BAGHDAD – Four U.S. soldiers died early Monday when two military helicopters crashed in northern Iraq, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The fatalities did not appear to be the result of “enemy action,” according to the U.S. military, although an investigation was continuing. Officials did not make clear whether the choppers collided or crashed separately, roughly 18 miles southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, according to Iraqi police.

The names of those killed were withheld pending notification of next of kin by the Department of Defense.

The deaths came as Iraqi officials and international monitors prepared for a watershed provincial election Saturday and also as the U.S. military continued to reduce its presence in Iraq in preparation for a full-scale withdrawal by the end of 2011.

In separate appearances Monday, one of Iraq’s top election officials sought to reassure voters of the integrity of the upcoming voting, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged candidates to not “corrupt the elections by buying votes.”

Election officials have received numerous reports of candidates offering cash, food, kerosene heaters, phone cards and other gifts to sway individual voters. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission has registered 180 reports of campaign violations, including alleged vote-buying and the destruction of opposition campaign materials.

Judge Qasim Hassan Al-Aboudi, an election commissioner, told reporters that the complaints were being dealt with promptly. Aboudi said that he expects losing candidates to make charges of voter fraud after the election, but only because they lost.

He said the electoral commission had learned from past elections and will post additional election monitors and improve record keeping to prevent fraud. Aboudi said election officials also had “a secret plan that will totally stop any attempt at fraudulent votes.”

The elections are seen by many as a major test of Iraq’s stability and an indication of whether the security gains made during the past year and a half will hold.