Three British soldiers were killed in the attack south of Baghdad, along with an Iraqi interpreter, in a suicide and mortar attack at a checkpoint. Eight troops of the Black Watch regiment were also injured.

A total of 73 British troops have died in Iraq since forces invaded the country in March, 2003, 34 of them in combat.

Escalating strikes against Fallujah are expected to come soon following the re-election of President Bush, who pledged to ensure that January polls in Iraq are successful and signaled by a large build-up of US forces around Fallujah and other rebel hotspots.

“US troops will enter Fallujah, Latifiyah, Ramadi and Qaim all at once in the next few days after Bush’s re-election,” says Mohammed al-Askari, a former Iraqi army officer turned political analyst, referring to other flashpoints.

Nearly half of Fallujah’s population of about 300,000 have fled to makeshift camps or are seeking shelter with fellow Sunni families in Baghdad.

In other news, time is short for kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan after her kidnappers threatened to deliver the British-Irish woman to al-Zarqawi by a Thursday deadline unless Britain pulled its troops out of the country.

At least four Iraqis were killed and 18 wounded when a car bomb exploded Thursday outside a city council building north of Baghdad, while a second car bombing to the south wounded six Iraqi national guards.

In a separate attack northeast of the Iraqi capital, unknown assailants shot dead Jassem Ali, who heads the village of Heb Heb, and wounded two bodyguards.

Meanwhile, in Ramadi, another hotspot west of Fallujah, the head of a powerful local tribe, Sheikh Khamis Futaikhan, was gunned down in an ambush on his car.

In a further blow to Iraq’s rehabilitation, Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres – MSF) says it is pulling out of Iraq because of escalating violence and the danger to its staff.

And as preparations for Iraq’s polls gathered steam, election organisers announced that Iraqis living abroad would be allowed to vote, ending months of debate over the thorny issue.