Iraqi council leader is slain

Posted in United States | 18-May-04 | Author: Ian Fisher| Source: The New York Times

The bombing occurred at a checkpoint leading to the Green Zone, the coalition headquarters in central Baghdad.
BAGHDAD - A suicide car bombing Monday near an entrance to the coalition headquarters here killed the head of the Iraqi Governing Council and three other people, dealing a further setback to the American effort to stabilize Iraq in advance of a June 30 handover of sovereignty.

The council leader, Abdul Zahraa Othman, better known as Izzadine Saleem, was the second member of the American-appointed council to be assassinated. He was killed while waiting in a council convoy at a checkpoint leading to the Green Zone, the coalition headquarters in central Baghdad.

L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, called the bombing a "shocking and tragic loss."

"The terrorists who are seeking to destroy Iraq have struck a cruel blow with this vile act today," Bremer said in a statement. "But they will be defeated." He added, "The Iraqi people will ensure that his vision of a democratic, free and prosperous Iraq will become a reality."

[A previously unknown group, the Arab Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility for the bombing, according to The Associated Press, saying in a Web site posting that two of its fighters carried out the operation against "the traitor and mercenary" Saleem. The Web site appeared to be associated with Iraq's Anbar Province, a stronghold of the Sunni Arab resistance that includes Falluja.]

The killing of Saleem, who held the rotating position of council president, underscores the risks facing Iraqis who work closely with the American-led coalition, which is also grappling with a tenacious insurgency and the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

Members of the Governing Council and other Iraqi officials condemned the bombing, vowing not to be intimidated.

"This will strengthen our resolve to continue the political process," Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Southern Shuneh, Jordan. "This will not derail the process."

Soon after the blast, the Governing Council selected Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a civil engineer from the northern city of Mosul, to replace Saleem as head of the council, a position that rotates monthly. Yawer will serve as the council's chief until the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. The bombing at the checkpoint, in a residential neighborhood, destroyed cars parked along the roadway and blew out windows in nearby buildings. "This is our destiny, we're all going to be like that," said Qais Jabbar, 28, who was helping to pull charred bodies out of the wreckage.

Speaking of Saleem, he said, "He's only a civilian, he's not an American." Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said that the killing should not deter the transfer of power.

"What this shows is that the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are trying to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power from the occupiers to the Iraqi people, and these terrorists are enemies of the Iraqi people themselves," he said in Brussels, where he is attending a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

Saleem was a Shiite and a leader of the Islamic Dawa Movement in the southern city of Basra. He was a writer, philosopher and political activist, who served as editor of several newspapers and magazines, The Associated Press reported.

He was in a convoy of five vehicles, and the car carrying the bomb was adjacent to his car when it exploded, a witness, Mohammed Laith, told The Associated Press. Hospital officials said Saleem's driver and assistant were among those killed. Six Iraqis and two American soldiers were wounded in the bombing, an American official said.

The first Governing Council member to be killed was Aquila al-Hashimi, who was attacked on Sept. 20 when gunmen in a pickup truck ambushed her car as she drove near her Baghdad home. She died of her wounds five days later. Meanwhile, fighting persisted in southern Iraq, where American fighter jets bombed militia positions in the city of Nasiriya early Monday after fighters loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, drove Italian forces out of a base there. Residents said seven fighters were killed in overnight battles, news agencies reported. An Italian soldier died Monday of wounds suffered during an attack on the base of the Carabinieri paramilitary police the day before in Nasiriya, the Defense Ministry in Rome said, according to an Associated Press report. The soldier was the 20th Italian to die in Iraq, after a suicide truck bomb in Nasiriyah killed 19 on Nov. 12.

Zarqawi is believed to be responsible for many of the vehicle bombs in recent months and for the death of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg, whose decapitation was videotaped and posted on the Web last week.

Kimmitt said that he did not know if the Arab Resistance Movement was "a cover for the Zarqawi network or if it's an actual organization" and that U.S. intelligence would need "to do some analysis on this."

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellen, said that Saleem "died working to build a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq." He added, "The enemies of a free, democratic and peaceful Iraq will not prevail."

In Brussels, the European Union expressed concern that terrorism was impeding Iraq's economic and political reconstruction.

While condemning the assassination, the 25 EU foreign ministers also said they were shocked by "recent evidence of the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraqi prisons."

In a statement, the ministers "condemned any instances of abuse and degradation of prisoners in Iraq."

They did not mention the United States or Britain, whose soldiers have been implicated in prisoner abuse cases. But they "welcomed the commitment by the relevant governments to bring to justice any individuals responsible for such acts involving the abuse of Iraqi detainees."

The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said incidents of prisoner abuse cast a cloud "over the moral credibility of the United States" and also reflected badly on other Western nations.