SEOUL — Three more soldiers formerly based in South Korea were killed in downtown Ramadi this week, this time the victims of a suicide car bomber, according to the Pentagon and soldiers on the ground.

Staff Sgt. Thomas E. Vitagliano, 33, of New Haven, Conn., Pfc. George R. Geer, 27, of Cortez, Colo., and Pfc. Jesus Fonseca, 19, of Marietta, Ga., died Monday while on foot patrol, according to a Pentagon news release and soldiers who were near the explosion. The three soldiers had just entered a building when the vehicle slammed into the exterior, exploding on contact.

The men were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, South Korea.

This week’s news brings the casualty toll to 39 among the 3,500 soldiers deployed last summer from Strike Force in South Korea, according to a count kept by Stars and Stripes. As of Wednesday morning, 1,364 servicemembers had died since the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion began in March 2003, according to the Pentagon.

The deaths came as tensions and violence escalated in recent days in anticipation of next week’s Iraqi national election. Five car bombings struck Baghdad on Wednesday, killing about a dozen people, despite increased efforts by U.S. and Iraqi forces to quell the Sunni Muslim insurgents, the Associated Press reported.

At the same time, Shiite Muslims and U.S. forces are preparing for the Jan. 30 election, when Iraqis will elect a 275-member assembly. Preparations for ballot boxes and polling places went on this week, and U.S. soldiers made rounds to talk with local residents about how and when to vote.

Monday’s explosion could be heard for miles around; another group of U.S. soldiers on patrol across the river saw a large black cloud of smoke rising from the area immediately after the blast.

The face of the building was destroyed, said soldiers who later patrolled near the scene. The charred remains of the vehicle were still on the street a few hours after the attack, they said.

In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff on the day of Vitagliano’s funeral, the Stamford Advocate reported this week.

John Hoffman, deacon at Holy Infant Church in Orange, where Vitagliano’s family worships, said Vitagliano enlisted in the military at age 17, the paper reported.

“It’s about as young as you get,” Hoffman, a family spokesman, told the newspaper. “No one loved the military life more than him. As a little kid he loved the military. It was a perfect home for him.”

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