Rural killings clash with calm in Iraq

At least 19 dead after about 50 gunmen attack power plant workers, Shiite laborers


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Suspected Sunni Arab insurgents killed at least 19 electric power plant employees and poor Shiite Muslim laborers during a rampage in a rural, religiously mixed stretch of the country, officials said yesterday.

A loose coalition of political leaders, meanwhile, pushed forward an attempt to derail the nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to a full term.

Kurds, Sunnis and a secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are trying to persuade the leading Shiite Muslim bloc to withdraw al-Jaafari's name.

Calm prevailed throughout the country for the most part during the Muslim day of worship as officials imposed a daytime curfew until 4 p.m. to prevent mosque gatherings from turning into potentially explosive political rallies.

Suspect arrested

Border police announced the arrest of a suspect wanted in connection with the bombing of the Abqaiq oil refinery in Saudi Arabia this week.

Ali Abdulla Salih Harbi, of unspecified nationality, was detained along with five other men in the desert near the Saudi border, said Saddoun Jabouri, a spokesman for the border police.

Authorities in the northern city of Kirkuk found the bodies of two police officers from the Sunni city of Tikrit, said Capt. Abbas Mohammed.

The officers, each showing signs of torture, had been abducted several days previously. Two bodies were found near Iskandariya, part of a religiously mixed patchwork of poor Shiite and Sunni villages south of Baghdad.

In the day's most grisly incident, more than 50 gunmen attacked an electricity substation in Nehrawan, near the city of Baqubah, killing nine employees and injuring two power plant guards, police said.

As American and Iraqi troops arrived, the gunmen withdrew toward brick factories in the mixed Sunni and Shiite area between Baqubah and Baghdad, a frequent site of sectarian killings, and killed 10 Shiite factory workers.

On the political front, al-Jaafari's opponents need at least some Shiite lawmakers to defect to scuttle his nomination. He is widely viewed by Kurds and Sunnis as ineffective and too sectarian.

Shiites have maintained a united front behind al-Jaafari, who secured his coalition's nomination by a one-vote margin among its 130 members of the 275-seat parliament.

But in recent days, cracks have begun to emerge in the alliance, which has the backing of Iraq's highest Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Criticism at prayers

At Friday prayers in Najaf, Ayatollah Mohammed Yaqoubi, spiritual leader of one of the Shiite parties in the coalition, criticized al-Jaafari, as well as other members of the country's political class.

"The prime minister leaves the country burning and goes to Turkey, while national leaders usually break their trips and go back home when an incident takes place in their country," he told worshipers, referring to a trip taken during the tumult that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Muslim holy site.

"As for the leaders of the political blocs, they have been meeting not to lift obstacles and solve complications, but only to blame others."

Other Shiite members of parliament have privately expressed worries that the issue could harm the alliance's strategic partnership with Kurds.

"To be committed to a Jafari nomination will lead to a bottomless pit," said one official within the alliance, who requested anonymity.

"The Kurds are not ready to sacrifice the friendship of the Americans and Europe for the sake of Ibrahim Jafari."

The Shiite coalition's seven-member leadership committee convened an emergency meeting Thursday night to discuss a letter submitted that day by Kurds and Sunnis calling for al-Jaafari's dismissal.

"The entire alliance is very firm on that and will not give up on Jafari," said Sami Askari, a member of the Shiite coalition.

He played down the controversy as a "personal matter" between al-Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

"We are continuously meeting with the Kurds and Sunnis," he said. "Our meetings are productive, and we will surpass this obstacle."

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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