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Baghdad governor killed, as unchecked violence threatens elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Prospects for a successful Iraqi parliamentary election Jan. 30 appeared all but hopeless Tuesday amid continuing violence, as insurgents gunned down the governor of Baghdad province in a brazen daylight attack and a fuel truck rigged with explosives killed at least eight members of an elite Iraqi commando force while wounding 58 people.

The continuing strife has widened the divide between the majority Shiite Muslim population, which would gain control of the country through Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, and Sunni Muslims, many of whom are planning to boycott the elections and a minority of whom have turned to violence.

Even should the elections proceed, they now hold little prospect of producing a government that would be broadly acceptable to Iraq's diverse ethnic groups.

While a number of politicians in and out of the interim Iraqi government—including the president, defense minister and ambassador to the United Nations—have said the security climate would make the elections difficult, U.S. officials and Shiite religious leaders are forging ahead.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who stands to lose in the election if religious clerics prevail, is growing increasingly anxious about the voting, scheduled for Jan. 30.

"Given any excuse, he'd bail," a senior administration official in Washington said of Allawi.

Even so, President Bush and his top advisers see no choice but to hold the election on schedule.

The senior official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because his remarks weren't authorized, said any delay now would mean even greater trouble for the United States because Iraq's Shiite majority and its spiritual leaders insist that the balloting proceed.

Neither U.S. troops nor Iraqi security forces have been able to halt or even slow the widespread murder and intimidation of prospective voters and candidates in Sunni areas, including Baghdad itself, as CIA officers in Iraq reported last month.

If the elections proceed, Sunni involvement probably would be minimal, raising the prospect that the minority Sunni population, which controlled Iraq for most of the past century, would resist the authority of any new government.

The major Sunni party has withdrawn its ticket of candidates. There are neither voter registration centers nor any registered voters in the Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi. In several other major Sunni areas—Samarra, parts of the Diyala province and nearly all of Mosul—no voters have registered either.

There've been suggestions of guaranteeing Sunnis a set percentage of seats in the parliament or pushing the elections back to give parties more time to organize. But to delay the elections would risk the ire of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric. While he hasn't threatened violence, his word could lead to massive unrest amongst the Shiite population, thought to make up some 60 percent of Iraq.

Speaking in Thailand, Secretary of State Colin Powell said of Baghdad Gov. Ali al-Haidari's death: "It once again shows that there are these murderers and terrorists, former regime elements in Iraq, who don't want to see elections. They don't want the people of Iraq to choose new leaders. They want to go back to the past ... and that's not going to happen."

The campaign against top Iraqi politicians has continued for months, with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi publicly calling for Allawi's execution. On Monday, a car bomb outside Allawi's party headquarters killed three Iraqis. A week before, a bomb targeted Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a politician at the top of the main Shiite political ticket. It missed him but killed 15 others.

Al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's ambush of al-Haidari. Al-Haidari and his staff were riding in three SUVs on their way to inspect a water treatment station when at least six cars of gunmen sped up, stopped the convoy in the middle of the road and opened fire, killing the governor and three of his bodyguards, according to an aide.

"The governor had been getting threats," said Nada Mohammed, a secretary in al-Haidari's office. "He did not pay attention to them or take more precaution. ... He said who's going to protect Iraq if everyone who received a threat quit?"

It was the highest-profile murder of an Iraqi politician since the president of the former governing council was killed last May.

Al-Haidari, a Shiite engineer in his late 40s, was instrumental in setting up Baghdad's government after the American-led invasion of Iraq. He helped form the city's advisory council and had the reputation of being a moderate politician who acted as an intermediary between American officials and the Iraqis he served.

"God bless him, he was indifferent; he didn't care about the threats," said Saeb al-Gailani, a longtime friend of al-Haidari who serves on the governate council. "We are technocrats, and we don't think we need many bodyguards around us."

The assassination seemed to shake Iraqi politicians.

Qassim Daoud, a minister of state for national security, paused when asked about the governor's death, and said, "I do not want to speak about that right now."

A woman who answered the phone for Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said that "because of what happened today, he is not taking calls."

Later in the morning, a fuel truck rigged with explosives slammed into a checkpoint outside the headquarters of the Interior Ministry's commando police force, killing at least eight commandos and two civilians, and wounding 58 bystanders and troops, according to a ministry official. The commando unit has been billed as the Iraqi government's best bet for insuring stability during elections.

It was the second attack on the facility during the past three months. The last one, in which a suicide bomber used an SUV, killed at least six and injured 20.

Reached by phone, the chief of the police station in the neighborhood where the commandos were killed said he wasn't sure what had happened.

"I have been sitting at home for a month because I was attacked by those dogs," Sabah Fahad said, referring to the insurgents. "It has become a time of assassinations."

The U.S. military reported that three soldiers were killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb Tuesday in Baghdad. A bomb near Balad, north of Baghdad, killed another. Officials said that farther north, in the restive city of Mosul, insurgents tried to overrun a police station Monday. They were driven back by Iraqi security forces. It was the 13th such attack on a station there since Nov. 10.

During one of his last news conferences, al-Haidari spelled out his plans to improve Baghdad's infrastructure this year, saying insurgent attacks hindered many of his plans in 2004.

"They are affecting the performance of these" efforts, he said. "We are going to use force against those who want to stop these projects."

He added: "I hope the security situation will improve."


(Salihee is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef of the Detroit Free Press and special correspondent Huda Ahmed in Baghdad, and John Walcott in Washington contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.