With the country prepared for its first free election in half a century, gunmen seized a Turkish businessman outside a Baghdad hotel, killing seven of his Iraqi employees, while another seven were killed in a car bomb attack in the north of the country.

An aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, his son and four bodyguards were murdered on Wednesday after they left prayers in the lawless Sunni-majority town of Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad.

Sheikh Mahmud al-Madahaini had been the target of several threats and attempted assassinations in the past, officials said.

Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of the country’s majority Shiites, is not running for office but has emerged as the kingmaker after he blessed the front-running United Iraqi Alliance of political and religious parties.

Meanwhile, a Turkish businessman was kidnapped outside his central Baghdad hotel on Thursday by men who machine-gunned seven of his employees who had come to collect him in a mini-van.

“At 6:00 am (0300 GMT), like every morning, seven employees of the (Turkish construction company) arrived to pick up their boss, a Turk named Abdel Kader Tam,” an employee at the hotel said.

“Today, 10 armed men in two cars were waiting for them. They machine-gunned the bus, killing all seven occupants, and kidnapped the Tur.”

Elsewhere, seven people were killed, including four policemen, and 38 others were wounded when a car bomb exploded in front of a Shiite mosque in a town just north of Baghdad.

Amid the backdrop of violence, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said an Iraqi election which fails to provide sufficient representation for the Sunni Muslim minority would be a victory for the country’s insurgents.

“I think the Sunnis want to have an opportunity to speak, with respect to how they wish to be led,” he told PBS radio. “And so I think a successful election will be an election where most of the population has gotten a chance to vote.”

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