2 car bombs kill dozens in Iraq

More than 60 people dead in attacks in Shiite cities

3 election workers executed

December 20, 2004|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In twin attacks targeting Iraq's major Shiite Muslim cities, car bombs in Najaf and Karbala killed at least 62 people yesterday and wounded 120, threatening to inflame sectarian anger as the nation prepares for next month's election.

In a separate ambush in Baghdad, heavily armed militants attacked a car carrying five employees of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, dragging three of the workers out of the vehicle and executing them in the street in front of scores of rush-hour drivers.

The attacks appeared to be the latest attempt by insurgents to provoke chaos and instability before the Jan. 30 election.

"We blame the extremists, fundamentalists and remnants of the old regime," said Mohammed Hussein Hakim, spokesman for and son of one of Najaf's leading Shiite clerics. "They are trying to bait a sectarian conflict and create a state of terror."

Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, have been among the leading proponents of elections. Led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the long-oppressed Shiite community is optimistic that a vote next month will allow them to assume a major role in governing Iraq.

The insurgency is largely made up of Sunni Muslims, who lost power after the U.S.-led invasion toppled President Saddam Hussein and who have been threatening to boycott elections.

Election officials vowed yesterday to continue their work.

"We won't be frightened by a few terrorists," said Abdul Hussein Hendawi, head of the commission charged with supervising the vote. "These inhumane crimes do not represent the Iraqi people."

Yesterday's attack in Baghdad brings to nine the number of election workers killed so far, Hendawi said. Two died Saturday when a mortar shell hit their office in Dujail, a town about 50 miles north of the capital.

The car bombs in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq exploded within two hours yesterday afternoon, each near the cities' gold-domed shrines, which rank among the holiest sites in Islam.

The second and more deadly of yesterday's explosions struck in Najaf. The blast came at 3:30 p.m. in a narrow street where dozens of clinics and doctors offices are located, about 300 yards from the Imam Ali Shrine. Among the victims were patients seeking treatment, including many women and children, witnesses said.

The city's police chief and the regional governor were attending a funeral procession not far from the blast site, but neither was injured.

"This attack targeted innocent Iraqis," said Adnan Zurfi, governor of the region.

At Zehra Hospital, frantic relatives searched for loved ones among charred, mangled bodies laid out in the hospital garden.

"Why did you leave the house," one anguished man cried over the body of his brother. "You are newly wed and your bride is waiting for you."

Hospital officials said 49 people were killed and 90 wounded in the blast. There were conflicting reports over whether the attacker or attackers were among the dead.

The bombing broke a relative calm in Najaf after battles in August between U.S. troops and followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. American officials have been leading a $200 million reconstruction program to rebuild the Old City, which was heavily damaged in the fighting and suffered another devastating blow yesterday.

About two hours before the attack in Najaf, a car bomb exploded near a bus station in Karbala.

Thirteen people were killed and 30 injured, officials said. The blast ignited a row of minibuses and left a 5-foot crater in the asphalt.

Both cities had been targeted before. On Wednesday, a senior Shiite cleric narrowly escaped assassination in Karbala when a bomb exploded as he was on his way to evening prayers at the Imam Hussein shrine. At least seven people were killed and dozens wounded. In March, bombers killed about 85 celebrants during a religious gathering in the city.

In August 2003, a car bomb killed revered cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim and scores of others in Najaf as they left Friday prayers.

The attack on election workers earlier yesterday occurred in the area of Haifa Street, one of Baghdad's oldest and most dangerous neighborhoods. More than 30 militants armed with pistols, machine guns, Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades swarmed the car carrying five election workers before pulling three of them into the street, officials said.

An Associated Press photographer captured pictures of the attack, showing an election worker lying on the ground as a gunman aimed a pistol at his head. A second election worker, on his knees nearby, was shot seconds later, AP reported.

The employees were identified as Hatem Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a lawyer and deputy director for one of the commission's offices in Baghdad, and two office employees, Mahdi Sbeih and Samy Moussa.

The two other workers escaped the attack, though it was not immediately clear how.

Unlike the approximately two dozen election workers assigned to the United Nations, who live and work in the heavily guarded Green Zone, most of the 6,000 Iraqi employees of the nation's electoral commission travel without weapons or heavy security. Officials fear the workers were followed.

"There was a huge number of terrorists involved," said Hendawi, the commission chief. "We think it was an organized attack."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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