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Baghdad attack strains new ties

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Five sheiks and a political official who supported the arming of Sunni Arab tribes to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq were among 12 people killed yesterday in a bombing at a heavily guarded Baghdad hotel.

The attack threatened to derail an emerging alliance between Sunni tribal leaders in restive Anbar province and the country's Shiite majority one day after a key round of negotiations to formalize their relationship with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bloody bombing. U.S. and Iraqi officials said they thought it was the work of militants linked to al-Qaida. But in a display of the rancor that the bombing could engender, two prominent Sunni tribesmen made new threats against Iraq's Shiites, blaming the blast on al-Maliki's government or agents of Shiite-dominated Iran.

The explosion at the Mansour Melia hotel, home to the Chinese Embassy, parliament members and prominent national figures, came on a day that saw at least 48 deaths across Iraq in suicide attacks, bombings and mortar strikes.

Survivors described being knocked down by the blast, which witnesses ascribed to either a suicide bomber or explosives placed in the hotel's lobby. Those wading through the smoke said they saw the charred bodies of several Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders who they had hoped would help Iraq overcome its fierce sectarian warfare.

"The target was the national project that even involved Mr. al-Maliki," said Sheik Mohamed Daham al-Fahdawi, whose Sunni tribe has been fighting foreign Islamist militants around Habaniyah in Anbar province.

Al-Fahdawi said he escaped death only because he had risen from a seat by the lobby television and walked a short distance away just before the blast. He said the explosion threw him down and that he scrambled through the wreckage to find his friends.

Many of them had been in a meeting with al-Maliki on Sunday in which they agreed on procedures for enlisting tribesmen into local police forces. The dead included a former governor of Anbar province, Sheik Fassal al-Guood of the Albu Nimir tribe; Sheik Abdul-Aziz al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe; Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Dulaimi, a commander in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq; Mohammed Awadi, a Shiite cleric from Najaf; Hussein al-Shaalan, a Shiite tribal leader who had attended a government conference on reconciliation; and Shiite politician Aziz Al-Yasseri, an adviser to the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

Also killed was poet Rahim Maliki, who was making a television program on the Sunni tribes fighting al-Qaida. Eighteen others were injured, police said.

Among those touring the blast site was Shiite politician Ahmad Chalabi, now a secular adviser to al-Maliki. Chalabi worried aloud about the impact of the killings on the Sunni tribes who had reached out to the government.

"This is a message from all the terrorists to all the leaders in Anbar, Abu Ghraib and Diyala who want to come to terms with the situation and negotiate with the government; they are vulnerable and in easy reach even when they are in one of the most secure areas in Baghdad," Chalabi said.

In the talks Sunday, participants had agreed in principle to guidelines for forming local police battalions. Last week, al-Maliki had warned that the national government wanted control over the process, which was initiated by the U.S. military in Anbar.

So far, eight tribal police battalions have been created there, and the U.S. military has tried to incorporate the idea in Diyala province. U.S. officials see it as a way to promote national reconciliation at a time when Iraq's government remains deadlocked on major initiatives.

In other attacks yesterday, a car bomb targeted two minibuses carrying police academy recruits in the southern city of Hillah, killing eight people and wounding 25, police said.

A suicide bomber blew up a fuel truck outside the Baiji police station, 125 miles north of Baghdad, killing 18 people and wounding 50, police said. The U.S. military said 17 of the dead were police officers.

Seventeen bodies were found in Baghdad, all but one on the city's western side, which remains a battleground between Shiite militias and Sunni fighters.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed, one in Baghdad, the other south of the capital.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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