Gunmen have killed a top aide to Iraq's highest Shi'ite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who strongly supports holding national assembly elections on January 30th.

The ayatollah's office said the aide (Mahmoud al-Madaen) was gunned down Wednesday in the ancient town of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, along with his son and four guards. They were returning home after evening prayers at a local mosque.

Insurgents in Iraq have been targeting election workers, candidates and government officials in a campaign of violence ahead of the election, which interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and President Bush say must go ahead as scheduled.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, unidentified gunmen attacked a hotel early today (Thursday), killing six people and kidnapping a Turkish businessman.