Aide to Shiite cleric assassinated in IraqAttack evokes threat of sectarian strife
BAGHDAD Gunmen have assassinated a representative of Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and five other people in an attack south of Baghdad, the cleric's office said Thursday.
The attack in the town of Madain on Wednesday evoked the threat of sectarian strife ahead of the Jan. 30 elections and appeared to be a message to Sistani, who as the most senior cleric of Iraq's Shiite majority strongly supports the vote.
Sistani's representative, Sheik Mahmoud al-Madaini, was killed along with his son and four guards after leaving sunset prayers at a mosque in Madain, about 12 miles, or 20 kilometers, south of the capital, said an official in Sistani's office.
In further pre-election violence that is predicted to escalate, seven Iraqis were killed and a Turkish man was kidnapped in front of a Baghdad hotel by a group of gunmen Thursday, according to an employee of the hotel.
The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the Turkish man as a forklift driver. The Associated Press reported that the man, Abdulkadir Tanrikulu, was a businessman and his construction company was working in Iraq with the Americans.
The witness said that a group of about 10 gunmen attacked a minibus carrying the Iraqis in front of the hotel.
An American soldier was killed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul Thursday when his patrol hit a roadside bomb, the American military said, according to Agence France-Presse. The military's public affairs office in Baghdad said it was checking the report.
Insurgents have kept up an unrelenting campaign of attacks before the election, making foreigners and Iraqis who work with the occupying military their targets. Iraqi security forces and government officials have also been killed throughout the country in ambushes and bombings that call into question the readiness of security forces to make Iraqi cities safe for people to vote on Jan. 30.
It was not immediately clear who killed Sistani's representative, but Sunni militants accused of trying to undermine the elections have been blamed for attacks on Shiite officials, clerics and political parties.
Many Iraqis say they believe such attacks are being waged by former Baathists and Sunni Arabs concerned about the potential political power of Shiites, who form about 60 percent of the population.
The Sunni minority had enjoyed dominance under Saddam Hussein.
In the past month, at least three large-scale attacks have killed dozens of Shiites. One was a suicide car bomb outside the Baghdad headquarters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite political party, that killed nine guards and visitors about two weeks ago.
The party is running in the elections as part of the United Iraqi Alliance coalition, backed by Sistani.
Earlier in December, in the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, car bombers killed at least 61 people.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi acknowledged for the first time this week that "pockets" of Iraq would be too dangerous for voters to cast ballots in the election. His remarks in a televised address echoed those made last week by the commander of American ground forces here, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, that parts of four Iraqi provinces, most of them dominated by Sunni Arabs, were not yet safe enough for voting.
The four are Baghdad; Anbar, which includes Falluja and Ramadi; Nineveh, which contains Mosul; and Salahadin, which includes Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
American and Iraqi officials have said they expected violence to surge ahead of the elections and the military has increased its operations. The American military said in statements Thursday that it had rounded up at least 59 men since Tuesday who are suspected of involvement in attacks.
Most of those detentions took place in the north-central Sunni heartland and in Mosul. Two suspects were detained in Baghdad during a search for the killers of the Baghdad governor, Ali al-Haidari, the military said.
An American military official, Major General John Batiste, said at a news conference Thursday in Baghdad that his troops and Iraqi security forces are "chasing down the insurgents" in the four provinces north of Baghdad: Salahadin, Suleimaniya, Kirkuk and Diyala.
"That will go on continuously up through, to and after the elections," he said.
American forces are expected to keep a distance from the polling stations to make the vote look like an entirely Iraqi endeavor. They would form a rapid reaction force available for the Iraqis to call on "to stomp on the insurgent when he raises his ugly head," Batiste said.
Batiste said that in at least two cities, Samarra and Baiji, north of Baghdad, there were still security problems, and that in Samarra, especially, insurgents were fighting for a foothold.
"I expect the insurgency to continue with intimidation in small cells," he said. "He'll go after the Iraqi security forces when he can find them in small numbers. He'll attack us from a distance."