As political and security tensions rise before the parliamentary elections, fighters in the Western al-Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from those loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

These same fighters violently opposed elections held in January when many Sunnis, in rebel strongholds such as Ramadi and Falluja, either staged a boycott or were simply too scared to vote.

Ali Mahmoud, a Falluja resident and former army officer and rocket specialist under the Baath party, said: "We want to see a nationalist government that will have a balance of interests. So our Sunni brothers will be safe when they vote."

Former Baathists opposed to the US presence in Iraq, such as Falluja resident Jassim Abu Bakr, are still fiercely opposed to US-backed leaders, and say any Sunni politicians who move too close to them will lose their support.

"We are telling Sunnis that they have to vote for nationalist parties and even if they win, we will be watching very closely to keep them in line," said the Falluja fighter, 28.

In Falluja, known as Iraq's City of Mosques, Sunni Muslim spiritual leaders made it clear there would be no repeat of the boycott of January's election which left their sect marginalised.

Encouraging change

Despite the continuing hostility, this shift in attitude is encouraging for the US, which hopes to engage Sunni Arabs in a policy of peaceful politics in order to defuse the fighting. But it is far too early to suggest that any breakthroughs will ease violence that has left thousands dead.

Most election posters back two Sunni politicians, Saleh Mutlak and Adnan al-Dulaimi. Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia and former prime minister who ordered a US-led offensive that devastated Falluja last year, has some appeal, fighters said.

Allawi, a former prime minister,
 has appeal for some fighters

The influential Association of Muslim Scholars urged its large Sunni community to boycott what it saw as illegal polls in January.

Nearly one year on, the group has so far been officially neutral, but some of its members have called participation in the polls a religious duty.

Ramadi remains a trouble spot. Just a few days ago US helicopters were exchanging fire with determined fighters.

But Saddam loyalists have turned against al-Zarqawi, originally from Jordan, whose fighters travel to Iraq from across the Arab world.

"Zarqawi is an American, Israeli and Iranian agent who is trying to keep our country unstable so that the Sunnis will keep facing occupation," said a Baathist leader who would give his name only as Abu Abd Allah.

Political wrangling

Meanwhile, the election campaign geared up for its final sprint ahead of Thursday's poll, with rival candidates trading bitter accusations over mounting political violence.

Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, campaigning hard on a joint Shia-Sunni ticket to unite the country and end the armed chaos, has accused the government of leading the country to the brink of civil war. 

Magnifying the insecurity, the fate of four Western peace activists remained in limbo on Sunday after another ultimatum expired from their kidnappers who threatened to kill them unless prisoners are released.

In order to ensure that Thursday's vote takes place with a minimum of violence, the Interior Minister Bayan Baker Solagh has announced strict security measures.

The country will grind to a halt for the election, with a five-day public holiday, a ban on carrying weapons in public and night-time curfews.

Land borders will be closed and airports shut beginning on Wednesday.

Similar measures were adopted during an October vote on the constitution and a January election to elect a transitional parliament.

More than 15.5 million Iraqis are eligible to go to the polls on Thursday to elect 275 members of parliament from about 7000 candidates competing for a seat in the country's first full-term parliament since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government.