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 from “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 watershed provincial elections Saturday, and also as the U.S. military continues 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 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 Hasan Abodi, an election commissioner, told reporters that the complaints were being dealt with promptly. Abodi said that he expects losing candidates to make charges of voter fraud after the elections, but only because they lost.
“This talk about voter fraud will emerge due to competition,” the judge said. “We will hear much about this after the election results. The losers will impugn and talk about the integrity of the elections.”
Abodi said the electoral commission had learned much from past elections and would post additional election monitors and improve record keeping to prevent fraud. Abodi 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 last year and a half will hold. Such gains are evident in Iraq’s western province of Anbar -- a region that was once the deadliest for U.S. military personnel and is now among the least violent in the nation.
At a ceremony Monday, U.S. and Iraqi commanders signed documents finalizing the transfer of ownership of Camp Ramadi -- a major U.S. base -- to the Iraqi government.
“For those of us who physically live on Camp Ramadi, it really doesn’t change the normal day-to-day operations,” said Army Lt. Col. Kevin McMahan, the camp’s operations officer. “What it does mean, from a long-term perspective,” he said, is that “the bases and land [are being given back] to the Iraqis, due to their sovereignty.”