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PRECIOUS-Gold hits 4-month high as tensions flare in Middle East

Diptendu Lahiri

* Minutes of Fed's Dec. 10-11 policy meeting due at 1900 GMT

* SPDR Gold Trust holdings rose 0.23% on Thursday

* Dollar index down for second consecutive week

(Adds comments, details; Updates prices) Jan 3 (Reuters) - Gold prices climbed to a four-month high on Friday, as tensions mounted in the Middle East after a senior Iranian military official was killed in a U.S. air strike, while a weaker dollar also provided some support to the metal. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in the air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport, the Pentagon said. "News from the Middle East along with some technical buying and a weaker dollar is supporting gold prices today," said Benjamin Lu, analyst at Phillip Futures.

and was up 0.6% at $1,538.42 per ounce by 0250 GMT. U.S. gold

For the week, spot gold has gained 1.9%, heading for a fourth consecutive weekly increase. Gold is considered to be a safe investment at time of political and economic uncertainties.

down for the second consecutive week against a basket of rivals, making gold cheaper for holders of other currencies. "If gold prices can sustain the $1,540 level today, then investors will be bullish at least for the short term, but given that the global economy is strengthening, we might see bullion prices soften a bit over the first quarter of 2020," Lu added. Bolstering hopes for a stronger U.S. economy, the number of Americans filing claims for jobless benefits edged lower last week, a positive signal for the U.S. labor market amid recent signs that new claims may be trending slightly higher.

China's central bank on Wednesday said it was cutting the amount of cash that all banks must hold as reserves, releasing around 800 billion yuan ($114.91 billion) in funds to shore up the slowing economy. Investors now await the minutes of the Federal Reserve's Dec. 10-11 policy meeting, due at 1900 GMT. Lower interest rates reduce the opportunity cost of holding non-yielding bullion. Indicative of investor sentiment, holdings of the world's

rose 0.23% to 895.30 tonnes on Thursday, its highest since Nov. 29.

after a 3% jump in intraday trade on Thursday. Palladium climbed 0.3% to $1,964.87 per ounce.

(Reporting by Diptendu Lahiri in Bengaluru; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)