Sunni killed

helped with constitution

Shiite-led government `will pay for this,' says group he belonged to

July 20, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunmen assassinated yesterday a leading Sunni who had been enlisted to help write Iraq's new constitution, imperiling efforts to win embittered Sunnis' support for the political process.

The National Dialogue Council, the group to which Mijbil al Sheikh Issa belonged, immediately announced that it was suspending participation in the constitutional committee and accused political parties in the Shiite-led government of being behind the assassination.

"The government will pay for this," said council spokesman Mohammed Dayini.

There was no evidence of government involvement and no claim of responsibility, but the accusation offers an indication of the rapidly worsening tensions between Sunnis and Shiites as the death toll rises on both sides.

Elsewhere yesterday, gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Iraqi workers to a U.S. air base near Baqouba, killing 13. Assailants in two cars attacked the minibus on its way to al-Faris air base, north of Baghdad, said police Col. Mahdi Saleh of Khalis.

Issa was one of 15 Sunnis appointed this month to the 71-member committee after intense U.S. pressure on Shiites and Kurds in the government to include Sunnis in the writing of the constitution. He was shot by unidentified assassins as he drove away from a restaurant in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada.

Dhamin Hussein Ileywi, an adviser to the committee, and Aziz Ibrahim, Issa's nephew and bodyguard, who were with him in the car, also were killed by the gunmen, who were in two vehicles.

Aug. 15 is the deadline for completing the constitution, and hours before the assassination, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the constitution would be completed on time.

Whether the deadline will be met has long been in doubt, because of the long delay in forming the new government and because of the negotiations to bring Sunnis into the process, which began in earnest early this month.

The Dialogue Council, a disparate group of former Baathists, Sunni nationalists and clerics, claims to have influence with the more moderate elements within the insurgency, though not with the radicals led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"I am not the resistance," Issa told the Los Angeles Times in an interview shortly before his death. "I'm a politician, but I speak the same language as the insurgency."

Issa said he did not fear being killed by insurgents "because we share the same ideology."

Government officials could not be reached for comment on the allegation that their supporters might have been involved in the assassination. Government spokesman Laith Kubba issued a statement condemning an "ugly crime, which targeted one of the best men of Iraq" and promising to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan also condemned the killings, which he blamed on "terrorists."

"They are enemies of the Iraqi people, and they will be defeated," he said.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, led by al-Zarqawi, has threatened on several occasions to kill any Sunni taking part in writing the constitution.

Saleh Mutlaq, the Dialogue Council's leader, said al-Qaida involvement is unlikely. Issa had been an outspoken opponent of a federal form of government in Iraq, he said, suggesting that was why he was killed.

"We cannot tell now, but Dr. Mijbil was well known for his position against federalism," he said. "There is this suspicion that this is why he was killed."

Federalism is proving one of the most contentious issues in the constitutional deliberations, with Kurds and some Shiites favoring a strong degree of autonomy for Iraq's provinces and Sunnis insisting on a strong central government.

Mutlaq said the Dialogue Council will consult with its members and other Sunnis before deciding whether to pull out of the constitutional committee. "I don't think we can continue as long as they are killing our members one by one," he said.

It is unlikely that a Sunni walkout would significantly endanger the deadline, because Shiites and Kurds have the two-thirds majority required in the National Assembly for the constitution to be approved. They have indicated that they are prepared to go ahead without the Sunnis if no consensus is reached.

Nevertheless, a Sunni withdrawal would be a blow to U.S. hopes that Sunnis will back the constitution when it is put to a referendum in October.

It is not known how much influence the Dialogue Council has with the insurgency, but U.S. officials have been promoting the council's involvement in the political process in the hope that its members will work toward weaning insurgents away from violence.

Shortly before his death, Issa indicated that was unlikely. "I will not advise them to give up their weapons or join the political process as long as there are foreign invaders occupying Iraq," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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