BAGHDAD, Dec 17: The United States failed to win a promise from the United Nations to increase its staff in Iraq ahead of elections as Washington stepped up its charges that Damascus was sheltering insurgent leaders.

The violence that threatens to mar Iraq's January 30 elections showed no sign of abating, with an Italian hostage reported killed and more US and Iraqi troops losing their lives in attacks.

Meanwhile, ousted president Saddam Hussein met his family-appointed legal counsel for the first time since his capture, and was said after the four-hour meeting to be in good health.

In Washington, outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his designated successor Condoleezza Rice pressed for greater UN involvement in next month's elections.

However Secretary General Kofi Annan remained cautious about prospects for augmenting UN staff, saying that "from a technical point of view, we have done all that we need to do."

The world body has an international staff of about 50 in Iraq, including less than two dozen electoral experts working on next month's vote, which has been clouded by mounting concern over security.

KILLINGS: And a group in Iraq claimed it had killed an Italian hostage identified as Salvatore Santoro, Al Jazeera television reported, saying it had a videotape. In Rome, the foreign ministry said it believed the body was that of Santoro, an Italian national.

Al Jazeera broadcast pictures of Santoro's passport and showed him sitting bound and blindfold in a ditch with a gun to his head. In separate footage, four masked and armed men were shown reading a statement.

Quoting from the statement, Al Jazeera said Santoro had been killed after his captors found evidence that he supported the Americans. It did not give further details.

The bodies of two more men apparently executed by insurgents were found, in the area just south of Baghdad near the Sunni rebel stronghold of Mussayeb dubbed the triangle of death, residents said.

The top US commander in Iraq said a group of former senior Iraqi Baathists, including Saddam's number two Izzat Ibrahim al Duri, was directing and financing rebels in Iraq out of Syria.

"We have fairly good information that there are senior former Baathists, members of what they call the new regional command operating out of Syria with impunity, and providing direction and financing to the insurgency in Iraq," General George Casey said.

"That needs to stop," he added. A Syrian foreign ministry official, quoted by the state news agency SANA, rejected the charges. "The repetition of these invented accusations, by certain people, show the will to hide the real reasons behind the deterioration of the situation in Iraq," he said.

Iraqi authorities and US-led forces are struggling to cope with the deadly insurgency ahead of the first multiparty elections in Iraq in half a century. A bomb blast outside one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the central city of Karbala killed at least 10 people and wounded 40, medics said. The bombing, in which a leading cleric was among the casualties, appeared to be a deliberate attempt to fan communal tensions ahead of the poll.

Two national guards were killed and two wounded by armed men at a checkpoint near Latifiyah, also in the so-called triangle of death, while a policeman was killed in a bomb attack near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. A US marine was killed in action during operations in the restive Al Anbar province west of Baghdad, the US military said.

SADDAM: A year after Saddam was found hiding in a hole near Tikrit, his defence team said that the ousted leader appeared well during a first four-hour meeting with a lawyer.

"The president seems in good health, much better compared to his first appearance before the court," said a statement issued in Amman by the legal team appointed by his wife and daughters.

Saddam is to be the last of a dozen defendants in custody to go on trial, with Ali Hassan al Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in 1988, the first to appear in the dock.

Meanwhile, Washington said it was ready to write off Iraq's 4.1 billion dollar debt. The debt write-off was to be signed later Friday by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Iraqi Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, the State Department said. -AFP

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