Iraqi provincial officials killed in blast

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The governor and acting police chief of a southern province were killed yesterday in a roadside bombing, raising fears of a backlash in an area that has been beset with fighting between rival Shiite factions.

The attack occurred as Qadisiyah Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and police Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were driving back to the provincial capital, Diwaniya, from the funeral of a prominent tribal leader, said Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Othman Ghanimi.

The governor's driver and a guard were also killed in the blast, which ripped through their armored sport utility vehicle, said Ghanimi, who commands Iraqi forces in the area. A second bomb was defused at the scene, he said.

Rival factions have been vying for control of areas across Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south. The governor was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the country's two largest Shiite political groups, which also controls the Qadisiya provincial council.

Hassan had been in the job less than two weeks and had yet to be confirmed by the provincial council. His predecessor was a reputed member of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

But radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is also popular in Diwaniya. Members of his Al Mahdi militia have fought U.S.-led foreign forces and Iraqi troops, and they are believed to have infiltrated the local police. Residents blame the militia for a wave of assassinations in the city. The victims have included policemen, soldiers, teachers, even a popular wrestler.

"The Mahdi Army is always behind these assassinations," said Nasir Mohammed, a local intellectual, expressing commonly held views in the town. "Their victims are not affiliated with any political party. But each one of them, whatever his connections are, when he encounters the Mahdi Army, stands against them, he will be liquidated."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for yesterday's attack, and security officials said they were investigating. The policemen at a nearby checkpoint were detained for questioning, said Majid Muhanna, the governor's office manager. But he stressed: "We are not accusing any side."

An official with the governor's party, Haitham Husseini, put the blame on "remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime," which he said were trying to "disturb the peace" in Qadisiyah.

Al-Sadr's followers were also quick to try to defuse the situation.

"We are very sorry for this big loss. It was horrible news for our city," said Haider Shimari, one of al-Sadr's representatives on the provincial council. "We really can't accuse any particular side because there are many outsiders that entered the city to make problems."

A curfew was imposed, and Iraqi security forces fanned out to prevent further violence in the city, about 95 miles south of Baghdad. U.S. aircraft circled overhead, residents said.

The Iraqi Cabinet expressed sorrow at the news and appealed for calm. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, also issued a statement expressing shock at the deaths in Qadisiyah, as well as an attack at the home of a prominent Sunni cleric in Baghdad.

A bomb exploded at the cleric's home in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Shiite-dominated east Baghdad. Sheik Wathiq Ubaidi was not home at the time, but the blast killed his brother and injured two children, police said. Ubaidi had been a preacher at the city's revered Abu Hanifa Mosque, where he denounced sectarianism and made frequent appeals for peace, followers said.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, Iraqi and American military officials say incidents of sectarian "cleansing" in Baghdad have decreased since a U.S. military clampdown began in February, but what is happening in the Amil and Bayaa neighborhoods belies the claim.

Since May, Iraqi police say, more than 160 bodies have been found in Amil and Bayaa - men without identification, usually shot and bearing signs of torture, hallmarks of sectarian death squads.

On many days, the number of corpses found in the two neighborhoods accounts for half of the bodies picked up across the capital. Before the war, Amil and Bayaa were middle-class neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites lived easily among one another. Now, not only are they mainly Shiite, but they have also become prime territory for Shiite militias looking to expand into the surrounding Sunni-dominated areas.

Representatives of the Mahdi Army blame the violence on Sunni extremists linked to the group al-Qaida in Iraq. Sunni leaders blame Al Mahdi men.

Residents say they enjoyed a period of relative calm at the start of the Baghdad security crackdown in mid-February, when Iraqi army soldiers were deployed in Amil and Bayaa.

It was short-lived.

In April, a Sunni mosque in Bayaa was badly damaged by a bomb. Since then, scores of people have died in car bombings in Amil and Bayaa. Amid the carnage have been assassinations and abductions.

Alexandra Zavis and Tina Susman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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