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Iraq: Officials Come Under Attack Ahead Of Power Transfer

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> The death toll from violent attacks continues to rise A series of attacks on officials has put Iraq's interim government under intense pressure just two weeks before Washington is scheduled to hand back sovereignty. Over the weekend, two Iraqi officials were gunned down in Baghdad as insurgents seek to undermine the power transfer with targeted killings.

Prague, 14 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Violence continued to rage in Iraq today. Sirens wailed through the city after a car bomb blew up near a convoy of vehicles in central Baghdad, killing at least 12 people, including five foreign nationals. Twelve people were killed in a similar blast in the capital yesterday.

Today's bombing follows a bloody weekend in which two top Iraqi ministry officials, a prominent Kurdish cleric and a university professor were killed in attacks that appear to be part of a new wave of targeted killings aimed at destabilizing the foundations of Iraq's new interim government.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned yesterday that Iraq could be in for a bloody summer as insurgents try to undermine the interim government before and after it officially assumes power from Washington in a handover of sovereignty scheduled for 30 June.

"They are going after these courageous leaders who have stepped forward, but that's not something to give them credit for," Powell said. "They are murderers and they're trying to murder people who are trying to serve the Iraqi people, and they cannot be allowed to succeed."

Iraq has been a major security challenge in the first two weeks of June, with more than 15 car bombings already and attacks on coalition forces numbering between near 40 a day.

Yesterday, a top official in Iraq's Education Ministry -- Kamal al-Jarrah, director-general for cultural relations -- was shot dead as he left his home in Baghdad. The attack came a day after gunmen killed Deputy Foreign Minister Bassam Salih Kubba, Iraq's most senior career diplomat.
"They are murderers and they're trying to murder people who are trying to serve the Iraqi people, and they cannot be allowed to succeed." -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

Sabri al-Bayyati, a Baghdad University professor, was also gunned down on 12 June; Sheikh Iyad Kurshid Abd al-Razzak, a prominent Kurdish cleric in the northern city of Kirkuk, was shot and killed the same day.

The attacks undermine the confidence of ordinary Iraqis in the government. Hamad al-Bayyati, a senior Iraqi diplomat, said yesterday: "When colleagues are assassinated, colleagues will refrain from contacts with the people. Our work will be harder."

Unlike government ministers, none of the four victims had bodyguards.

Analysts say insurgents may be targeting middle-level figures simply because they lack adequate security. Hazem Saghie, senior political commentator for the London Arabic language newspaper "Al-Hayat," said,
"I think this is part and parcel of their strategy: to get rid not only of politicians and potential politicians, but to get rid of all the superior characters who can participate in the rebuilding of Iraq."

Yesterday, Powell reiterated Washington's will to defeat what he called "murderers" in Iraq but acknowledged that "it's hard to protect an entire government."

Last week, Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Safar narrowly survived a drive-by shooting. The head of the disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim), wasn't so lucky in May when he was killed in a car bombing.

Washington has plans to train Iraqi forces to protect government officials, but according to media reports, they have yet to be put into effect.

Meanwhile, Major General Paul Eaton, the U.S. official charged with training Iraq's armed forces, acknowledged recently that the country's 200,000-strong military is still unfit for service. "We've had almost one year of no progress," Eaton said in early June.

European diplomats monitoring a separate program in Jordan to train Iraqi police report similar failings. The camp, which opened in November, was supposed to prepare 32,000 officers. But so far, the academy has graduated only 3,000 policemen, one-third of its target.

Given these shortcomings, U.S. General Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad on 12 June that regardless of the 30 June transfer date, the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq will be needed for some time to come.

"We will not be pulling out of the cities. We will not be relocating. We certainly would like to see more and more Iraqi security forces at the lead," Kimmitt said.

To what extent the attacks can achieve their aim remains to be seen.

Lebanese commentator Saghie said the next few weeks in Iraq are likely to be intense as insurgents continue to target officials of the new government, which was formed at the start of June with input from the United Nations, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

But Saghie told RFE/RL that he believes Iraq's new government will be aided in its struggle by having some legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis after the passage of a UN Security Council resolution on 8 June. That resolution endorsed Washington's transfer of power to the interim government.

"The participation of the United Nations and, to a certain extent, Europe and the Arab world is going to give more legitimacy to the new political situation in Iraq. And by achieving this step, the terrorists would be more isolated, politically speaking," Saghie said.