Bus bombed in Baghdad

Six Iraqi civilians were killed and 10 wounded on Friday in a bomb blast on a public bus in Baghdad as supporters and opponents of the draft Constitution started in earnest to campaign ahead of the October 15 referendum.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was to issue a fatwa or religious edict calling for a yes-vote in the constitutional referendum, an issue that has sharply divided Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.

“A fatwa will be issued within the coming days to encourage people to vote yes,” a source close to Sistani said in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.

Sistani, who rarely speaks in public, was one of the driving forces behind the January elections, the first free vote since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that saw Iraq’s majority Shi’ites and secular Kurds dominate Parliament.

The deadly bus explosion occurred in Al-Tayaran square in central Baghdad, sending a plume of black smoke rising over the city, a day after United States President George Bush warned that Iraq should brace for more violence in the three weeks ahead of the referendum.

“A man left a bag in a minibus shortly after he had boarded. It exploded just after he left,” a police officer said.

Shopkeeper Nadhem Hassan said he saw a man “enter the bus and leave it very quickly”, adding that he saw six burnt bodies in the vehicle.

Extremists ‘seek civil war’

After a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, Bush said: “As Iraqis prepare to vote on their Constitution in October and elect a permanent government in December, we must be prepared for more violence.”

Extremists are seeking “to set off a civil war”, he added.

“Some Americans want us to withdraw our troops so that we can escape the violence,” he said. “I recognise their good intentions, but their position is wrong.”

Sunni extremists have called for a boycott of the referendum and threatened to kill anyone taking part, while most Sunni organisations have urged a no-vote mainly because they object to federal provisions in the draft Constitution.

“We are against the way the power ...
and natural resources will be redistributed. We think the resources should be managed by the central government in order to preserve the unity of the country,” Ayad Sammarai, the spokesperson for the Sunni-based Islamic Party, said on Friday.

Most of the country’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south of the country.

Asked how a possible Sistani fatwa might influence the vote, Sammarai suggested it could further polarise Sunnis and Shi’ites at a time when Sunni extremists have been increasingly targeting Shi’ites.

“I don’t think it is wise to have a fatwa issued whether by the Sunnis or by the Shi’ites. It’s a political issue, not a religious issue,” Sammarai said.

A fatwa by Sistani would do little to bring on board Sunni Arabs, who dominated the establishment under Saddam but who now fear they are being politically marginalised.

The draft Constitution, approved by Parliament in late August, can be rejected if two-thirds of the voters in at least three of the country’s 18 provinces reject it. Three provinces have a majority Sunni Arab population.

Risk of war

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al-Faisal warned top US government officials that Iraq is rapidly heading towards disintegration and there is a risk of a regional war, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Prince Saud said he is so worried he is warning “everyone who will listen” in the Bush administration, the Times reported.

“There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together,” Prince Saud told reporters at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “All the dynamics are pulling the country apart.”

Prince Saud blamed much of Iraq’s ills on US decisions such as designating “every Sunni as a Ba’athist criminal”, he told the Times.

In other violence, two US soldiers were killed and a third wounded in two attacks in western Iraq on Thursday, the US military said on Friday.

The latest deaths bring to at least 1 909 the number of US military personnel killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of March 2003, including five civilian defence department employees, according to Pentagon figures.

Hospital officials in the main northern city of Mosul said on Friday they had received 10 bodies of men killed in the city.

Police Major Mohammed Fahti said three of the dead were members of the Turkmen Front, a minority Turkish-speaking community.

Also in Mosul, the US military said it had arrested a “Tunisian terrorist” who claimed he was recruited while in a mosque in France to join the insurgency in Iraq, which he reached by passing through Syria.

In the Iraqi capital, a Sunni imam, Sheikh Hamid Saleh al-Mashhadani, was kidnapped from outside his mosque by armed men, police said.—Sapa-AFP

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