Bomb kills 10 in Iraq

Sunni party quits ballot

Shiite leader escapes pre-election violence

December 28, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A car bomb exploded yesterday outside a building that housed Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a leading Shiite Muslim politician and likely candidate for prime minister, killing at least 10 people, including Iraqis passing by at morning rush hour.

Al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was in the SCIRI building but was not injured in the suicide attack, police said. The blast wounded more than 50 people, left a 10-foot crater and destroyed several passing cars, but did little damage to the building.

"We have chosen nonviolence, and we will stick to it," al-Hakim told Reuters, pledging to keep his party on the political path. "If we wanted violence, we would have responded a long time ago."

Iraq's shaky march toward national elections suffered another blow, however, when the nation's most established Sunni Muslim political party announced that it is dropping out of national elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

Also yesterday, a tape purportedly from Osama bin Laden urged Iraqis to boycott the elections and heaped praise on a notorious insurgent leader.

In explaining their withdrawal, Iraqi Islamic Party leaders said the country is not ready for the vote, mostly because of the violence and instability that have hit hardest in predominantly Sunni areas. Sunnis make up one-fifth of Iraq's population.

"We are convinced that the election will not be ... honest and will not be held in all parts of Iraq," said party Chairman Mohsen Abdul Hamid. "Thirdly, Iraqis don't understand the elections yet."

Officials with the interim Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition that installed it acknowledge the obstacles, including opinion polls showing that most Iraqis are not sure what offices they will be voting for about a month from now.

But officials in Baghdad and Washington express determination to go ahead with the vote, in which Iraqis are to elect a 275-member National Assembly that would draft a constitution. Iraqi and American leaders say an election in January is not only the next step legally but also the best way to combat an insurgency that is killing dozens of people a week.

While Sunni religious leaders have called for a boycott of the vote, Sunni politicians are lobbying for a postponement. They argue that an election that most Sunnis see as unfair would fuel the insurgency, not temper it.

"If 70 percent of registered voters showed up in the north, 80 percent in the south and less than 10 percent in other areas, there will be a lack of balance and it will give a distorted picture of the Iraqi reality," said Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman who heads a small group called the Rally of Independent Democrats. "We believe winning incomplete elections is not considered a real victory."

In an interview last week, Pachachi criticized the United States for pressuring Iraq to stick to the Jan. 30 date. And he argued that a delay would give authorities and society a chance "to address the grievances and concerns" of Sunnis in such places as Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul.

"So far, many of them are very reluctant to take part in the elections, some out of bitterness of the operations in Fallujah, and some because, frankly, they are afraid," Pachachi said.

The bomb, which struck at 9:15 a.m. yesterday and may have killed up to 15 people, was the latest in a series of attacks on Shiite religious and political figures. Authorities say the violence is part of a campaign to disrupt the elections and foment sectarian conflict.

The explosion was aimed at a convoy of vehicles entering a large complex that houses al-Hakim's home and offices and once belonged to Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's foreign minister and spokesman.

"I was standing here in front of our house, and it was very big explosion," said Alla Abbas, 22, who lives about 300 yards away. "A lot of cars were burned, and a lot of people were injured and killed. People were panicking."

Another witness said he saw a severely burned pregnant woman pulled from a car. Others saw at least 15 badly wounded people being loaded into ambulances. Supreme Council security guards and visitors to the compound, including five Iraqi journalists, were among the dead and wounded.

"This is a heavy traffic area, the intersection is always busy, and we believe that most of the casualties are civilians passing by," said Lt. Col. Kendall Penn of the 1st Cavalry Division, who arrived after U.S. troops sealed off the area with Humvees.

Al-Hakim headed the Badr Brigade, the Supreme Council's large and loyal armed wing, before taking over the council when a car bomb killed his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, in August 2003.

Like many in his family and his party's leadership, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim spent most of the Hussein era in exile in Iran. Some Iraqis consider al-Hakim and his party beholden to Iran, but al-Hakim has won the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. He heads a coalition electoral list approved by al-Sistani and expected to gain the most votes.

The audiotape purportedly from bin Laden said that anyone who participates in the elections is an infidel. And it called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on civilians, "a true soldier of God."

"He is the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and everybody should follow him and obey him," the speaker said. The tape was aired on the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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