Tensions escalate ahead of Iraq vote

Mob attacks ex-premier

police uncover plot to bomb Hussein's tribunal


NAJAF, Iraq -- Ayad Allawi, one of Iraq's most prominent politicians, and his entourage were pelted with rocks and shoes yesterday as they left a shrine, escalating tensions between religious and secular Shiite Muslim factions 11 days before parliamentary elections that will set the country's course for the next four years.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, one of the five judges in the trial of Saddam Hussein stepped down because one of the co-defendants might have been involved in the execution of his brother, a court official said yesterday. Another official said police had uncovered a plot to fire rockets at the courtroom when the trial convenes today for a third session.

Allawi, the former interim prime minister now leading a major political coalition, said that he and his bodyguards were attacked with gunfire in an assassination attempt outside the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, a claim disputed by local authorities.

Allawi and his deputies suggested that supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is aligned with a rival Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, had planned the attack. Al-Sadr's aides brushed aside Allawi's accusations.

The incident highlighted long-simmering antagonism between the secular, tough-talking Allawi and religious Shiites ahead of the Dec. 15 elections. Allawi's ideologically far-flung coalition of democratic liberals and former members of Hussein's Baath Party is vying with the United Iraqi Alliance's clergy-led list of Islamic political parties for votes among the nation's Shiite majority.

In the capital yesterday, two U.S. soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb struck their convoy. A roadside bomb also killed two civilians in a downtown square. And in separate incidents throughout Baghdad, gunmen assassinated a police lieutenant colonel, an army major, two police officers, a university professor and a Shiite cleric loyal to al-Sadr.

Amid the violence, the Iraqi High Tribunal reconvenes the trial of Hussein and seven co-defendants. They are accused in the deaths of more than 140 Shiites in 1982 after an assassination attempt against Hussein in Dujail.

The defense has challenged the legitimacy of the court and is expected to ask for a recess to prepare its case.

A statement released yesterday by the office of Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the country's best-known insurgent groups, planned to attack the building during the court session.

The statement said Iraqi intelligence uncovered the plot but gave no further details, including whether anyone had been arrested.

Since the trial opened, two defense lawyers have been assassinated and a third has fled the country.

Yesterday's melee in Najaf erupted after Allawi prayed at the shrine, which houses the tomb of the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and is widely considered the most sacred Islamic site in Iraq.

As a crowd of 50 to 70 men hit Allawi with rocks as well as footwear, the latter an act considered a dreadful insult by Iraqis and Muslims, his bodyguards surrounded him, fired weapons into the air to disperse a gathering mob and hustled him to safety. He was escorted to a U.S. military base north of Najaf before being taken to the capital, said an Allawi representative in Najaf.

Speaking before TV cameras in Baghdad after the incident, an angry Allawi suggested those responsible for the melee were linked to the same elements that killed moderate Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Khoei in Najaf after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iraqi authorities have alleged in the past that al-Sadr had a hand in the assassination, though he has never been arrested or charged.

Allawi said the attackers, captured on videotape, also wore black, as do members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to al-Sadr.

"They were chanting similar chants they were saying during the Khoei assassination," Allawi, who as prime minister approved a U.S. assault on rebellious Shiites in the city last year. "They were trying to assassinate all the delegation or at least to kill me."

Saheb Ameri, head of a Najaf cultural institute controlled by al-Sadr, said the clerics' followers had nothing to do with yesterday's incident.

"It was not organized," he said. "It was just people's ordinary reaction. The people expressed themselves toward secular, unpatriotic leaders."

Allawi, who at one time had ties to U.S. and British intelligence, called on local and national authorities to investigate the attack, in which he said he avoided assassination only because one of the assailants fumbled his weapon.

"Luckily, the pistol of one of them fell down from his hand while he was trying to [shoot] me," said Allawi, who as prime minister claimed he was frequently targeted for assassination.

Last night, the governor of Najaf, Asad abu Kalal, rejected the assassination claim. He told reporters that there were no weapons involved. "The people involved used stones and shoes," he insisted at a news conference.

He also laid part of the blame for the scuffle on Allawi because he visited the shrine accompanied by Western security contractors and without informing Najaf security forces.

"Dr. Ayad Allawi has come to Najaf in a secret way in coordination with the American forces, and without the knowledge of the official authorities in the governorate," Kalal told reporters.

Many Najaf residents resent Allawi for acquiescing to the U.S. military's 2004 request to attack the city and ferret out Mahdi Army militiamen. Weeks of gunbattles between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's ragtag army left the city a shambles, choked off the budding pilgrimage business and led to the destruction of large sections of Najaf's ancient cemetery.

Borzou Daragahi and Saad Fakhrildeen write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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