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Iraqi soldiers killed in attack

Suspected al Qaida militants have killed five Iraqi soldiers in a brazen dawn attack at a western Baghdad checkpoint and planted the terror group's black banner before fleeing the scene, officials said.

Police and hospital officials said the attackers arrived in three cars and used pistols fitted with silencers during the assault in the mainly Sunni Mansour district.

Security forces subsequently sealed off the area and were searching for the attackers, the officials said.

Violence levels have significantly dropped in Iraq since 2008 but attacks still occur daily, particularly in Baghdad, where al Qaida appears determined to show it is far from being a spent force despite the killing and capture of hundreds of its members and leaders by Iraqi and US forces.

A similar attack took place last Thursday in Baghdad's Sunni Azamiyah district, a former al Qaida stronghold, where suspected militants from the terror network stormed a checkpoint, killing 16 members of the security forces and briefly planting their banner nearby before fleeing.

The attacks in Azamiyah and Mansour are likely to raise concerns that insurgents are successfully taking advantage of the enduring political vacuum nearly five months after Iraq's parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner.

Politicians are still bickering over the formation of a new government, with the main hurdle being who should become the next prime minister.

Incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been struggling to hold on to his post, told state television on Monday that he was prepared to "suspend" his candidacy for a second, four-year term in office, but that doing so would not bring about a breakthrough.

Some of his allies have publicly called on Mr Maliki to step aside, while loyal supporters in his State of Law coalition are sticking by his candidacy.

Mr Maliki's comments came just hours after President Barack Obama promised again to remove all but 50,000 US troops from Iraq by the end of the month, wrapping up the combat mission of the US military in Iraq. The last US soldier is due to leave Iraq by the end of next year.

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