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Killing of Iraqi VP's sister condemned

Death comes 2 weeks after official's brother gunned down

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The killing of the new Iraqi vice president's sister drew sharp condemnation from his political party and a senior U.S. military commander Thursday.

Four gunmen killed Maysoon al-Hashimi and her driver in an ambush in the Alam neighborhood, an emergency police official said.

Al-Hashimi's brother is Tariq al-Hashimi, a leading Sunni official who was named to his Cabinet post last week. He is secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the majority entity of the Sunni-led Iraq Accord Front coalition.

The killing of al-Hashimi's sister comes two weeks after his brother Mahmood was gunned down while driving with a friend on a Baghdad highway.

Authorities have the license plate number of the BMW that Maysoon al-Hashimi's killers were driving, said Iyad al-Samaraie, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party.

But he said it's too early in the investigation to know the killers' identities.

A party statement said that the "assassination is a clear attempt to put an obstacle in the way of the political process."

The party has embraced the political process, a move that counters al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other hardliners at the forefront of the insurgency.

Tariq al-Hashimi has called for the use of force to put down Iraq's insurgency.

On Wednesday night, the vice president responded to al-Zarqawi's latest claim that Sunnis participating in politics were agents of the United States.

"I say, yes, we're 'agents,' but we're 'agents' for Islam, for the oppressed Iraqi people that we have to defend the their future," Tariq al-Hashimi said.

U.S. military cites progress

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch offered his "heartfelt condolences" to al-Hashimi and called him and others "true Iraqi patriots" who undertake personal sacrifices for their political activities.

As for al-Zarqawi, Lynch called his surfacing in a Web video Tuesday "an act of desperation" and said the military believes "that is indeed [al-]Zarqawi in his final hours." (Full story)

In the video, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader scorned the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi government, and urged unity among militants. (Full story)

Lynch said it was the first time since March 2004 that al-Zarqawi had shown his face.

"He knows the people of Iraq are on the verge of forming a national unity government and democracy equals failure for [al-]Zarqawi," Lynch said. "So he's pulling out all stops."

Disputing the notion that Iraq was near or already in a civil war, Lynch asserted that violence was on the downswing.

Roadside bombings killed four civilians and wounded 15 others Wednesday in central Iraq. Separately, four bodies were found Wednesday in the capital.

On Wednesday, senior military officials said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has tentative plans to reduce American troop levels in the country by about 30,000 by the end of the year. (Full story)

Casey met Wednesday with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was in Baghdad on an unannounced mission to show support for Iraq's move toward a new government.

Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has to fill his Cabinet and present the list to parliament for approval around May 21. (Read his bio)

Other developments

  • Three Italian soldiers and a Romanian soldier were killed Thursday in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya when a roadside bomb struck their military convoy, according to the Italian Defense Ministry. Another Italian soldier was in life-threatening condition. (Full story)
  • At least five Iraqi policemen and two civilians were killed Thursday in a series of attacks, including mortar fire, on police checkpoints in Baquba, north of Baghdad, Reuters reported. At least six policemen and two civilians were wounded, according to the news agency.
  • The body of the first Australian soldier to die in Iraq was left behind in Kuwait, and the wrong body instead was loaded onto a commercial flight and arrived in Melbourne early Thursday. Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson has called the mix-up involving Pvt. Jake Kovco, 25, who died in Baghdad last week, an "unacceptable, terrible mistake." (Full story)
  • CNN's Ryan Chilcote, Geoff Hiscock, Jamie McIntyre, Auday Sadik, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Alessio Vinci contributed to this report.

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