BAGHDAD, Iraq—Assailants in the northern city of Mosul on Monday shot and killed a leading cleric of an influential Sunni Muslim group that's called for boycotting Iraq's parliamentary elections, set for Jan. 30.
In separate incidents, private British security guards were blamed for killing an Iraqi policeman in an altercation in central Baghdad, and authorities south of the capital said they found 12 bodies, five of them without heads.
The cleric's assassination was the latest in a spate of violence, much of it apparently intended to derail U.S.-backed plans to hold nationwide elections at the end of January.
Gunmen in a getaway vehicle fired at the cleric, Sheik Feydhi Mohammed al Feydhi, as he left his home in Mosul at 9 a.m., colleagues said. No one was captured.
Feydhi belonged to the Moslem Scholars Association, which opposes the elections, saying they shouldn't be held until American "occupiers" withdraw from Iraq. The group claims to represent 3,000 mosques.
If the group persuades enough Sunnis to boycott the elections, it could call the legitimacy of their results into question, prolonging the mayhem that's torn at Iraq since last year's U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
The killing came on the eve of an international conference on Iraq in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.
Some Arab delegates to the conference, which includes Iraq's neighbors and the Group of 8 industrialized countries, suggested Monday that Iraq's elections might have to be postponed beyond Jan. 30 because of the violence.
But a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said holding the elections by the end of January was "very feasible."
The Bush administration has acknowledged that the elections may be imperfect, but is trying to maximize participation by Iraq's disaffected Sunni Muslim Arab minority.
Shortly after the Mosul assassination, shooting erupted near the Babylon Hotel in central Baghdad, the result of an apparent misunderstanding between police and a British private-security detail in a car with tinted windows and no license plate. The gunfire left one Iraqi policeman dead, and a second officer and a bystander wounded.
"It is not terrorist-related," Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a terse statement, declining to confirm that British security guards were involved.
Other officials said the police grew suspicious of the car and fired into the air in warning. The car's occupants returned fire, leading to the death and injuries. Whether one or two British security guards were involved wasn't clear. No identities were made public, and those involved were freed after questioning.
"It's not unusual for something like this to happen," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This country is bristling with arms."
Iraq has some 20,000 private security guards, far outnumbered by the 135,000 Iraqi police. The private guards are heavily armed, poorly regulated and virtually a law unto themselves. Under current regulations, private security companies must get licenses from the Interior Ministry, post bond and register all weapons, but few follow the rules.
Police found 12 bodies Sunday in Latifiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, the Defense Ministry said. Seven had been shot in the head, and the other five had been decapitated.
"Most of the bodies were mutilated and old," said Brig. Gen. Saleh Sarhan, a Defense Ministry official.
The bodies weren't immediately identified.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.