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NEW YORK (AP) _ U.S. markets will likely open lower on Thursday, unless economic data expected before the bell spark a buying spree.

The Labor Department is expected to release jobless claims statistics for the week of Dec. 9 at 8:30 a.m. EDT. At that time, November's retail sales figures and the U.S. account deficit for the third-quarter will also be released.

``If the numbers come at odds with expectations'' it could move the market up, said Larry Wachtel, market strategist for Prudential Securities. ``People are just hungering for something to hang onto.''

But without better-than-expected economic news, investors will continue consolidating the eight weeks of gains, he said.

The geopolitical front is also keeping investors at bay.

Although the news is unconfirmed, the United States suspects the Iraqis gave a nerve agent to al-Qaida, the Washington Post reported.

``It kind of makes you uneasy, the whole Iraq situation'' Wachtel said.

The futures point to a lower opening, with the Dow futures down 41 points, the Nasdaq futures off by 4.5 points, and the S&P 500 futures lower by 4 points.

European bourses also slid lower early Thursday, with London's FTSE 100 off 1.2 percent at 3,927, Paris' CAC-40 down 1.7 percent to 3,136 and Frankfurt's Xetra Dax lower by 2.3 percent at 3,123.

Trading in Asia was mixed, with Tokyo's Nikkei Stock Average down 18.97 points, or 0.2 percent, to 8,708.69 and the Hang Seng Index ended the day up 0.3 percent, or 29.21 points, at 9,813.78.

The Dow Jones indicative average, which measures actual trades of the industrial average's 30 components overseas, gained 41.29 points to trade at 8,630.43.