Iraqi governor assassinated as Shiite battles build in South
Maliki travels to Syria seeking to improve relations, secure assistance; Iran says Ahmadinejad will visit Iraqi leader in Baghdad.
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
A roadside bomb killed a governor in southern Iraq, the second provincial boss assassinated in nine days and a likely prelude to an even more brutal contest among rival Shiite militias battling for control of some of Iraq's main oil regions.
Iraqi police blamed Monday's attack on the powerful Mahdi Army, whose fighters are nominally loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr but have recently splintered as breakaway factions set their own course.
The showdowns in southern Iraq - pitting Mahdi groups against the mainstream Shiite group in parliament - could intensify as the British forces overseeing the south gradually withdraw in the coming months.
Meanwhile, a range of initiatives, both political and diplomatic, reached a near dizzying pace as the Sept. 15 deadline approached for US President George W. Bush's administration to report to Congress on its Iraq policies.
During the second day of a groundbreaking fact-finding tour, the French foreign minister warned Iraqi officials against complacency in the face of violence.
And Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sought improved relations and help in the immediate neighborhood at the start of a three-day mission to Syria. Iran said its firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would soon pay a first-ever call on the Iraqi leader in Baghdad.
An equally intense round of political meetings was held in Baghdad as al-Maliki and his Shiite and Kurdish allies have sought to entice moderate Sunnis into a new alliance formed last week to try to save the government from collapse.
The viability of al-Maliki's government - and its ability to enact US-backed reforms - will be one of the main themes of next month's progress report to lawmakers. The US-led mission to regain control of Baghdad and central Iraq - with the help of 30,000 additional US troops - was intended to give the Iraqi leadership more room to exert its authority.
The offensive, announced on Feb. 14, had made some notable successes against extremists. But, at the same time, al-Maliki's government was crippled by defections and boycotts by both Sunni and Shiite groups.
The Mahdi leader al-Sadr, once a key government ally, predicted in an interview with Britain's The Independent newspaper that al-Maliki's leadership role is doomed because he is seen as a "tool for the Americans."
Al-Maliki and his remaining allies formed a new Shiite-Kurdish coalition last week. But al-Maliki knows he also must have support from Iraq's neighbors for any real hopes in stabilizing the nation.
He was in Iran - the center of Shiite political power - earlier this month and invited Amadinejad to pay a return visit. The Iraqi leader now seeks better links with Sunni officials in Damascus, where he was to meet President Bashar Assad on Tuesday.
Syrian and Iran, despite having different Muslim majorities, are both seen as major actors in the Middle East through their support for the radical Hezbollah Shiite group in Lebanon and the Sunni Hamas organization in the Palestinian territories.
There were reports Assad was prepared to offer a security pact that could tighten the Syrian border against foreign fighters who have crossed into Iraq since the summer of 2003. Syria and Saudi Arabia are believed to be a main pipeline for groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq, which was blamed for the deadliest coordinated attack of the war last week when suicide bombers killed at least 400 people belonging to a small religious sect near the Syrian border.
"We will discuss the serious security file and its challenges, which concern not only Iraq but the whole region. We will discuss the Iraqi community and immigrants in Syria and the ways to provide them with services," al-Maliki told reporters in Damascus.
Bernard Kouchner, the charismatic French foreign minister, sat down with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi officials Monday - the second day of a visit whose symbolism could boost White House efforts to prolong the American mission in Iraq.
France was among strongest Western opponents of the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Kouchner's unannounced appearance in Baghdad on Sunday was the first by a senior French official since the war.
"It is true that, in the past, we did not agree with certain countries about the events in 2003, but all that has been put behind us now," he said in French at a joint news conference with Talabani. "Today, we have to look toward the future."
Kouchner said the United Nations should take a key role in brokering a political solution among Iraq's squabbling factions. "We must not become accustomed to violence in Iraq."
A political accord in Iraq could entice the French to take a role, he said.
"We, then, would be ready to participate here beside the Iraqis. We hope this solution comes through the U.N. participation."
Talabani promised Kouchner a "complete picture" of today's Iraq and called the visit a "historic chance" to solidify relations.
Monday's roadside bomb assassination killed Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani as he drove to his office in the provincial capital of Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. Al-Hassani, his driver and a guard were killed. His office manager and two other guards were seriously wounded, police said.
Authorities clamped a curfew on Samawah. New checkpoints were erected.
On Aug. 11, a roadside bombing killed the governor and police chief of Qadasiyah, another southern province. Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were returning to the provincial capital of Diwaniyah from a funeral for a tribal sheik.
Both governors were members of a powerhouse among Shiite political organizations, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists, who dominate the police in the south of Iraq, have been fighting Mahdi Army militiamen for dominance in the oil-rich south - which may hold 70 percent or more of Iraq's oil reserves, according to various estimates.
Al-Hassani, 52, was from a prominent clan in the area and had been governor for about two years despite several attempts by rivals in the provincial council to dismiss him.
SIIC dominates the Muthanna provincial council, holding half the 40 seats. The others are divided among other Shiite parties.
"There was nothing against the governor inside the province except the confrontations between Mahdi Army and SIIC, which have claimed the lives of dozens of people," a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
At least five provincial governors - all Shiites - have been killed in Iraq, with three assassinated in the 2004-05 period by Sunni insurgents.
In other violence, a car packed with explosives blew up in Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold in eastern Baghdad. Four people died and 15 were wounded, police said.
The bombing came after thousands rallied in the district demanding the withdrawal of American forces and an end to US-Iraqi military raids.
Earlier in the day, a bomb planted on a motorcycle struck a market district elsewhere in the capital, killing three and wounding 11, according to police. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
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