2 Iraqi officials escape assassination

Attacks on increase against public figures as U.S. hand-over nears

May 23, 2004|By Edmund Sanders, Alissa J. Rubin and Raheem Salman | Edmund Sanders, Alissa J. Rubin and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two Iraqi officials narrowly escaped assassination attempts yesterday, including a deputy interior minister whose home was devastated by a car bomb that killed five of his guards and a neighbor.

Abdul-Jabbar Youssef Sheikhli, who was appointed to his Interior Ministry post less than two months ago, and his wife suffered cuts and other minor injuries in the attack at 7:50 a.m. but were expected to recover. As many as 10 others were wounded in the attack on one of the top officials of the department responsible for police and security within Iraq.

To the north in Baquba, the dean of Diyala University, Khosham Atta, escaped harm when gunmen shot at his car as he went to work, the university said.

The violence, part of a resurgence in attacks against Iraqi government officials and other public figures, comes less than six weeks before the United States is scheduled to hand over control of Iraq to an interim government.

Last week, Ezzedine Salim, president of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, was assassinated by a car bomb as he attempted to enter the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad.

"It's a long-standing pattern of intimidation on the part of terrorists trying to demonstrate to this country that they have the capability to derail the process toward sovereignty," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top military spokesman in Iraq.

Neighbors said yesterday that the suicide car bomber struck Sheikhli's home in eastern Baghdad as the official was preparing to leave for work. Sheikhli is the deputy in charge of administration of the Interior Ministry.

The blast destroyed 22 cars around the house and sent twisted pieces of the suicide vehicle into a nearby palm tree. A charred swing set and lawn furniture smoldered in the front yard as police investigators searched for clues. Pools of blood, oil and gasoline stained the driveway, garage and kitchen.

"His job is to fight crime, and now crime is fighting back," said Samir Shaker Mahmoud Summeidi, Iraq's interior minister, as he surveyed the damage yesterday. "This is a war."

A group headed by al-Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack in a Web site posting.

Meanwhile, masked gunmen wearing the black uniforms of the Mahdi militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took up positions on the roof of a popular hotel for journalists in the holy city of Najaf yesterday even as al-Sadr aides appeared to suggest that they were willing to consider a peaceful solution to a stalemate with U.S.-led forces.

Climbing onto the roof of the hotel from a neighboring building, the fighters prepared mortars and targeted coalition troops with small-arms fire, effectively making the hotel into a target for the U.S.-led troops.

As gunfire and mortar rounds sounded across the city and bullets ricocheted in the alley near the hotel, the streets emptied, and the hotel guests - primarily Arab journalists - fled.

Even as the fighting seemed to intensify during the day, a spokesman for al-Sadr said his militia would end its armed presence in Najaf and Karbala as soon as U.S. troops withdraw from the holy Iraqi cities.

"We are prepared to end our armed presence the moment the occupation forces leave the holy cities and give guarantees of that," said spokesman Qais al-Khazali to reporters. "There are no guarantees up to now that the occupying forces will not go back to the holy shrines."

Although it is al-Sadr's militia and not the U.S. troops who have installed themselves in the shrines, al-Sadr's claim is that his militia is there to protect the sites. His offer to withdraw if the United States withdraws first is similar to offers he has made before and then backed away from. The U.S. military views such talk as posturing rather than genuine negotiating. However, American officials are watching closely to see if continued military pressure on al-Sadr will bring him to the negotiating table.

Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led occupation administration, said there had been no contact with al-Sadr.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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