BAGHDAD -- Authorities in Iraq have arrested three close associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, officials said yesterday, claiming to be close to capturing the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist mastermind himself two days ahead of historic elections that extremists have vowed to subvert.
The announcements, made days after the arrests, appeared aimed at helping reassure Iraqis about security ahead of voting tomorrow.
Just before the first free balloting in Iraq in half a century, the nation battened down, imposing a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew yesterday, closing Baghdad's airport, and sealing the nation's borders for the election period.
The curfew will remain in effect from today through Monday and restrictions on traffic have been imposed to try to deter car bombs. Iraqi security forces took positions at polling sites and traffic checkpoints throughout the country, under the guidance of US troops.
Violence continued earlier yesterday. In Baghdad, bombings killed five US soldiers and four Iraqi police officers. Insurgents also targeted more polling sites across the country.
American troops and insurgents exchanged fire on a major Baghdad thoroughfare. US fighter jets thundered through the skies over Baghdad throughout the morning.
A US Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crashed in southwest Baghdad last night, and the fate of the crew was not immediately known, a US military official said. Kiowas usually have a crew of two pilots and this one was not believed to be carrying a large number of passengers. Military officials do not believe the helicopter was hit by hostile fire, Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton said.
The crash happened two days after a CH53E Super Stallion helicopter transporting troops went down in bad weather in the western desert, killing 30 Marines and one sailor.
The arrested Zarqawi associates included Salah Suleiman al-Loheibi, the head of his group's Baghdad operation, , and Ali Hamad Yassin al-Issawi, said Qassim Dawoud, a top security adviser to Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister.
Also captured was Zarqawi's military adviser, a 31-year-old Iraqi named Anad Mohammed Qais, 31, said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.
Asked whether authorities were close to arresting Zarqawi himself, Saleh replied: "We are getting close to finishing off Zarqawi and we will get rid of him."
The Jordanian-born Zarqawi heads Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, which like other militant groups has threatened to kill anyone who takes part in tomorrow's election. It repeated those warnings in a new Web message yesterday, telling Iraqis they could get hit by shelling or other attacks if they approach polling stations, which it called "the centers of atheism and of vice."
"We have warned you, so don't blame us. You have only yourselves to blame," it said.
Yesterday's announcement brings to six the number of purported Zarqawi lieutenants arrested recently.
The announcement appeared aimed at bolstering public confidence in security forces in advance of tomorrow's election. Officials fear a low turnout -- particularly among Sunni Arabs -- could tarnish the legitimacy of the new National Assembly and provincial governing councils.
The US ambassador in Baghdad, John Negroponte, insisted some Sunnis will turn out to vote. "Sunnis don't only live in some of these beleaguered provinces, they live here in Baghdad, they live in other parts of the country," Negroponte said on CBS's "The Early Show."
Amid tight security yesterday, expatriate Iraqis began casting ballots in 14 countries, from Australia to Sweden to the United States.
Five US soldiers were killed in Baghdad yesterday, three of them by a roadside bomb that hit a patrol in a western district. The other two were killed by a bomb in southern Baghdad and in a shooting across town.
Yesterday's suicide car bombing rattled Baghdad's Doura neighborhood, a flashpoint in recent days. Hours later, another car bomb exploded on the neighborhood's main road, damaging a school where voters are to cast ballots. No one was hurt.