Iraq casualties continue to soar as Bush stresses importance of constitutional process

Posted in Iraq | 14-Jun-05 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Iraqi police and firemen examine the site of a car bombing in Tikrit that killed two policemen, on a day of attacks across the country.

As casualties continue to rise in Iraq, President George W. Bush spoke with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and stressed the importance of the country's Parliament completing the draft of a new constitution. At least 943 people, including U.S. troops, have been killed since the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced his government six weeks ago - an event that many thought would curb the violence.

Insurgents, many of whom are believed to be Saddam loyalists, launched four suicide car bombings and other attacks around Iraq that killed at least 14 people on Monday.

Another 22 Iraqis were wounded after militants opened fire on authorities trying to evacuate the injured from one of the suicide blasts that killed three police officers and an Iraqi civilian in the city of Samara.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush is grateful to those who have been killed defending freedom and said it's important that Iraqis push forward with their constitution despite the violence.

"Just to keep in perspective here, this is still less than a year since we transferred sovereignty to Iraq," McClellan said. "In that time period, Iraq has made important strides on the political front. ... And it's important that they continue to move forward on the political front, because that helps improve the security front as well."

McClellan said Bush and Talabani also discussed the importance of having all groups in Iraqi society represented in the constitutional process.

Already tense relations between the majority Shiites, who dominate the government and Parliament, and the Sunni Arabs, that many hold responsible for the insurgency, soured further Monday.

Strong disagreements broke out over the number of representatives the once-powerful Sunni minority will have on a committee drafting the country's new constitution.

Shiite lawmakers rejected calls for increasing Sunni representatives from 15 to 25 on the 55-member drafting committee, and Sunnis have renewed threats to boycott and sink the charter.

Meanwhile, the tribunal that will put Saddam Hussein on trial released a video showing the former dictator - looking drawn and tired but dressed in a pinstriped suit - being questioned about the killings of at least 50 Iraqis in a Shiite town.

It was likely that the Iraqi Special Tribunal trying Saddam issued the video to counter widespread beliefs that its process was being controlled by Shiites and Kurds who dominate the government and the 275-member National Assembly.

Iraq's Kurdish president and the Shiite-led government said last week that the ousted leader could appear before the tribunal within two months. They backtracked after complaints from Saddam's legal team and the tribunal, which issued statements saying no trial date has been set.

At least two legal officials close to the case said the video was apparently made Sunday. They did not want to be identified for security reasons.

The video was Saddam's first appearance since his arraignment on July 1, 2004 in Baghdad. At the time he was arraigned on broad charges that include killing rival politicians over 30 years, gassing Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, invading Kuwait in 1990 and suppressing the Kurdish and Shiite uprising.

Unlike that appearance, where Saddam was combative and tried to exhibit his authority, the newly released tape shows a man who appears a shadow of his former self.

In early June, Juhi said in an interview that Saddam's morale had collapsed because of the charges he faces.

"The ousted president has suffered a collapse in his morale because he understands the extent of the charges against him and because he's certain that he will stand trial before an impartial court," Juhi was quoted as saying by the London-based Asharq al-Awsat.

Iraqi authorities have said Saddam will face 14 thoroughly documented cases relating to alleged crimes committed during his 23-year rule. Many carry the death penalty.

The wave of attacks in Baghdad, Samarra and Tikrit came as radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr met with the Russian ambassador and tribal chiefs from the insurgent hotbeds of Fallujah and Ramadi. Russia and Sadr fiercely opposed the war on Iraq.

The meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf seemed to be a sign of the cleric's desire to return to active politics after going into isolation last fall following clashes between his militia and U.S. troops.

Sadr has in recent weeks been trying to mediate between an influential Sunni Arab association and a Shiite militia that have traded accusations of targeting each other's supporters and clerics.

Chamov was making the first visit by a Russian envoy to Sadr's office since the U.S.-led war began two years ago.

"We talked about what the Iraqi people are facing and what's taking place in Iraq, including the American presence and terrorist attacks," he said.