As charter vote nears, violence flares in Iraq

Shiite factions clash in holy city of Najaf

attack on Baghdad police kills at least 15

August 25, 2005|By Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman | Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Clashes yesterday between followers of a radical Shiite cleric and a rival Shiite faction in Najaf, an Iraqi holy city, left at least six dead and scores injured during a violent day throughout the country on the eve of a National Assembly vote on a new constitution.

In Baghdad, as many as 40 gunmen and suicide bombers staged a daylight attack on police that left at least 15 dead and 56 injured.

Insurgents launched three attacks in and around Baqouba that left at least eight Iraqis dead.

They also attacked the home of a police commando in Samarra, publicly executing one of his relatives before blowing up the house.

Meanwhile, sectarian and political tensions simmered on the eve of today's vote in the transitional National Assembly on the draft constitution. Although the document is thought to have the support of a majority of the legislators, its call for a degree of federalism and other provisions have drawn strong opposition from some Iraqis.

Police closed off roads and imposed a curfew on Najaf, a shrine city that has been quiet since clashes last year between U.S. troops and members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been critical of the new constitution.

Al-Sadr's followers said they were victims of an unprovoked attack by rioters who tried to burn down al-Sadr's Najaf office. Witnesses said demonstrators were protesting an increase in political activity in and around the old city, which many Najaf residents and clergy consider holy.

Militia mobilized

Al-Sadr's followers blamed a rival Shiite faction for the clashes and said they would pull their bloc of at least 20 lawmakers and three ministers out of the government. They also said they have mobilized their militia.

Al-Sadr supporters are hungry for revenge against the rival Supreme Council of the Islamic Republic of Iraq, led by Abdelaziz Hakim, which controls the Interior Ministry, said Fatah Sheik, a leader of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc.

A witness said clashes also have broken out between Iraqi police and followers of al-Sadr in the southern city of Amara in recent days.

Al-Sadr's followers have hinted that they might oppose the constitution because it provides for a federal system that some people fear would diminish the power of the central government.

Baha Araji, another leader of the al-Sadr movement, said yesterday that the clashes yesterday were unrelated to differences over the charter.

In a television interview last night, the leader of Hakim's militia, Hadel Amari, condemned the attack on al-Sadr's office and promised an investigation. "This is aimed at sabotaging the constitutional process," he said.

Shopkeepers and bystanders were among those killed and injured during the assault on police in the Jamiyaa neighborhood of Baghdad. The attackers, thought to be Sunni insurgents, were armed with car bombs, rockets and machine guns, police said.

The apparent target, a visiting police chief from Samarra, survived. Iraqi police and soldiers, along with U.S. forces, rushed into the area to head off further attacks. Most of the gunmen escaped, but two suspects carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers were arrested, a police official said.

Also in the capital, Deputy Justice Minister Osho Ibrahim narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, the second attempt on his life in two days.

Near Baqouba, gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims home after a visit to holy sites in Iran, killing four.

In Oudiam, 40 miles north of Baqouba, a roadside bomb killed four Iraqi engineers working for a cell phone company.

Sunnis angered

Sunnis, who dominated the security forces and the upper ranks of the government under Saddam Hussein, are angered by a draft constitution that they say would gives too much influence to Iraq's provinces and regions.

A referendum on the constitution is scheduled for Oct. 15. If it is approved, a permanent government will be elected Dec. 15. If it is rejected - which will happen if two-thirds of the voters in any three provinces oppose it - a new transitional government will be elected in December.

Sunnis largely boycotted the Jan. 30 elections. The Independent Election Commission of Iraq issued a communique yesterday calling on residents of heavily Sunni provinces such as Al Tamim, Al Anbar, Nineweh and Salahuddin to register for the October vote.

The Los Angeles Times is Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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