Iraqi leaders defiant after twin bombings

Iraqi Shi’ite leaders braced on Monday for greater violence but vowed to push ahead with elections in January after twin car bombs claimed the lives of 66 people in the pilgrimage cities of Najaf and Karbala.

The bombings that wreaked carnage at a funeral procession in Najaf and a packed bus station in Karbala were a stark reminder of the violence that could lie ahead in the six weeks before the January 30 elections.

Fifty-one people, including an Arab national, were detained after the attack, Najaf governor Adnan al-Zorfi told reporters.

“We have found a connection between the two bombings in Karbala and Najaf,” Zorfi said.

“This operation is part of the sectarian war waged by terrorists both inside and outside Iraq to impede the democratic process and to cancel the elections,” Zorfi said.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, one of the four senior Shi’ite clerics in Iraq, warned attackers are “trying to spark sedition and destabilise the country” and called on the Iraqi government to “put an end to these crimes and to arrest the evil-doers”.

Shi’ite leaders said the attacks in Najaf, which killed 52 people and wounded 145, and in Karbala, claiming the lives of 14 and wounding 57 others, tried to scare people away from voting.

“They want to make a civil war. These are Shi’ite cities, but the attackers will not have an effect on elections,” said Ammar Dakhl al-Assaidi, a spokesperson for the Shi’ite fundamentalist Dawa party.

“There will be more car bombs, suicide bombs, assassinations. There will be more bloodshed, it will increase in Shi’ite areas and mixed areas, where Shi’ites, Sunnis and Christians live together.”

He blamed the bombings on radical Islamic group al-Qaeda, its suspected pointman in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, and members of captured dictator Saddam Hussein’s old regime.

A spokesperson for another Shi’ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, warned the attacks meant to intimidate Iraqis from taking part in the electoral process.

“They are trying to deter people from participating in the elections ...
They’ve miscalculated,” said Haitham al-Husseini.

Sheikh Sadraddin Kubanji, an associate of the country’s leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the attacks targeted both the political process and Najaf’s Marjayah, or elite Shi’ite clerics, who give spiritual guidance to millions around Iraq.

“We find that the enemies of Marjayah and the people were trying to convey two messages: one sent to the Marjayah stating ‘We will ... take care of the political process you are backing.’

“The second message was to address the multitudes that if they are to take part [in the elections] they would face the same fate.”

He noted the Najaf blast was not far from Sistani’s offices.

Kubanji announced a three-day period of mourning and blamed the bombings on former members of Saddam’s regime, along with Islamic extremists.

Political analysts weighed in with a grim prognosis.

“There will be violence to make the elections difficult and dangerous, so people stay home and do not vote. There will also be attacks to jump-start a civil war,” said International Crisis Group analyst Joost Hiltermann.

In another assault on the electoral process, three election workers were dragged out of their cars in Baghdad on Sunday and shot dead.

The brutal attack in broad daylight by six armed men on Haifa Street, known as an insurgency haven, underlined the urgent need to improve security.

United States troops are expected to rise from 138 000 soldiers to a record-high of 150 000 ahead of the elections.

On Monday, four men, three of them believed to be foreigners, were killed in a roadside ambush north of Baghdad, while three Iraqis, including a woman, were killed in a string of other attacks, police said.

The huge question hanging over the political process is whether the country’s Arab Sunni Muslim minority will head out to the polls or stay away. Many members of the community, fearful of Iraq’s Shiite majority, harbour sympathies for the insurgency and the detained former president.

Saddam jumped into the fray over the coming elections from his cell on Sunday.

A spokesperson for his Jordan-based legal team said the former president urged the Iraqi people to be united and cautioned them to be wary of the elections slated for January 30.

He made these “recommendations” during his first meeting with one of his Iraqi lawyers last Thursday, spokesperson Ziad Khassawneh said in Amman.

Saddam, captured by the Americans last December, is preparing to go on trial for war crimes, along with 11 of his henchmen, before an Iraqi special court.

Insurgents, meanwhile, released video footage of 10 handcuffed and blindfold Iraqis they said were employees of a Washington-based US security and reconstruction firm.

An accompanying statement threatened to kill the captives unless their employer halts its Iraq operations but gave no deadline, said Al-Jazeera television, which aired the tape.—Sapa-AFP

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