Bomb shakes power-transfer prospects

Head of Iraqi council dies in car blast at checkpoint

Crisis In Iraq

May 18, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The car-bomb assassination of Iraq's highest-ranking civilian leader in Baghdad early yesterday appeared to make the prospect of a smooth transfer of political power from U.S. occupation authorities even more fragile and the risks of more violence even higher.

American officials insisted the June 30 handover would occur as scheduled even as they condemned the killing of Izzadine Saleem, a moderate Shiite who held the rotating presidency of the Iraqi Governing Council this month.

But the transfer already has been clouded by a dispute over the make-up of a future government and a violent standoff between U.S. forces and a radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, which might have enhanced al-Sadr's stature as a leading opponent of the U.S. occupation, and questions about the future role and authority of U.S. military forces.

Saleem, also known as Abdel-Zahraa Othman, died in a car-bomb explosion near a checkpoint at the entrance to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound where the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has its headquarters. He was on his way to a 10 a.m. meeting of the governing council and was stopped at the checkpoint.

Iraqi officials said the blast also killed seven others - five members of Saleem's entourage and two members of the Iraqi security forces - and wounded 15. Saleem was the second Governing Council member to be assassinated.

Another Shiite, Aquila al-Hashimi, one of three women on the 25-member council, was fatally wounded in an ambush last September.

It was unclear yesterday whether the attack represented a targeted assassination or an act of violence aimed at a well-known security checkpoint.

Sense of instability

Yesterday's killing "projects a continuing sense of extreme instability in the country," said Bathsheba Crocker, a specialist on postwar reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

She said the murder also shows that "people who work with the coalition will be targeted."

A U.S. military spokesman suggested that the attack bore the hallmarks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant linked with al-Qaida who is believed to have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks, including the filmed beheading of American free-lance businessman Nick Berg.

In Washington, a U.S. official said Zarqawi's involvement couldn't be ruled out but cautioned, "At this point, we don't know who is responsible."

But the official, who declined to be identified, said, "I would take with a large grain of salt" the claim of responsibility posted on a Web site of a previously unknown group called the Arab Resistance Movement.

Other suspects

Analysts said that in addition to Zarqawi, suspects could include Sunni loyalists of Saddam Hussein seeking to block any progress toward representative rule or followers of al-Sadr intent on eliminating Shiite rivals.

The attack coincided with renewed fighting yesterday in the holy Shiite city of Najaf between backers of al-Sadr and U.S. coalition forces.

Saleem, who was from the southern Iraqi town of Basra and had been in exile in Iran in recent years, was a leader of the Dawa Party, a fundamentalist political movement founded in 1957 that was one of the most durable underground sources of opposition to Hussein's regime. He was an ally of the Ayatollah al-Hussein al-Sistani, Iraq's most widely respected Shiite cleric.

The assassination would not deal a fatal blow to the Dawa movement, said Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a longtime student of Iraq. "You can't intimidate the Dawa," he said.

Danger to moderates

But the killing underscores the dangers faced by moderate Shiite leaders, as well as by anyone who is seen to cooperate with Americans.

The attack occurred against a backdrop of turmoil in plans for the transfer of political power that depends for its success on the survival of moderate leaders to counter radical forces among minority Sunnis and majority Shiites.

Moderate Shiite parties are "crucial to avoiding complete disaster," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has closely followed Iraqi politics.

The longer al-Sadr holds out against American forces hoping to capture him, the stronger his appeal grows among the large population of poor and unemployed Shiites, Ottaway said: "The reason why he has support is that he's the one who has taken the strongest stand against the U.S. occupation."

Two other prominent Shiites have been killed since the U.S.-led occupation began. Al-Sadr's forces have been accused of involvement in the stabbing death a year ago of Al Seiyyed Abdul Majid Al Khoei, son of a revered Shiite religious leader, who had just returned from exile in London.

Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, who headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, was killed during a bombing last August in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Frequent targets

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