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Head Of Iraqi Governing Council Killed

17 May 2004 -- The current head of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated today in a suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad.

The attack, outside the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters in the Iraqi capital, killed council president Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad, also known as Izz al-Din Salim, and several others. Details are sketchy, but reports say Uthman's convoy was waiting outside the headquarters compound when a bomb exploded in a nearby vehicle.

A unnamed spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) confirmed Uthman's death, saying a suicide attack was suspected. "We believe that it was a suicide bomb, that the individual [who] set it off was a terrorist, that he was killed in the explosion also," the official said.

The assassination underscores the fragile security situation in the Iraqi capital just six weeks ahead of the planned transfer of sovereignty by the U.S.-led coalition to an interim Iraqi government.

Uthman is the second council member to have been assassinated. Aquila al-Hashimi was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Baghdad last September.

Chief U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer, in a statement, deplored the bombing as "a vile act."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw blamed what he called "terrorists" trying to disrupt 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 that these terrorists are enemies of the Iraqi people themselves," Straw said.

Iraqi Interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari, speaking at an economic conference in Jordan, also decried the attack, but said it would not derail the 30 June sovereignty deadline. He used the killing as an opportunity to underscore the importance of the 25-member, U.S.-picked council.

"This shows to all those people who have been dismissive of the [Iraqi] Governing Council -- [who have said] that it is not effective, that it is not representative -- that [council members] are the prime targets of these terrorist attacks and those anti-democratic forces who want to derail this process. But we will not be cowards, we will not be intimidated, and we will continue the march for the new Iraq," al-Zebari said.

The council has been fiercely criticized by insurgents fighting the U.S.-led coalition. The insurgents accuse the council of collaborating with the U.S.-led occupation.

But the council's future beyond 30 June is in doubt. Special UN Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, charged with assembling a new interim Iraqi government to rule until elections can be held next year, is said to favor bypassing the council in order to build a broader, more technocratic government. In recent days, council members have lobbied hard for the group's survival.

In a statement today, Brahimi praised Uthman as an Iraqi patriot who worked "sincerely and selflessly so that Iraq may regain its sovereignty and strength."

Uthman, a Shi'a and leader of the Islamic Al-Da'wah movement in the southern city of Al-Basrah, was widely respected as a writer and editor. His was also a moderate voice advocating peaceful means for solving the country's problems. Just two days ago, he gave an interview to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and had this to say.

"I think there are many factors [to help fight terrorism]. Among them are a cultural campaign supported by a wide campaign against poverty that will take care of young people in need, families of the victims and poor families. Also, the authorities should include political movements in these efforts. There are many movements which should participate in the political process to contain terrorism in our country," Uthman said.

The motive of the attack is not clear, but at least one Governing Council member, Salama al-Khafaji, said it appeared aimed at fomenting sectarian divisions within Iraq. Relations remain uneasy between the country's majority Shi'a population and its Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities.

The council has selected Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, a Sunni civil engineer from the northern city of Mosul, to replace Uthman. Al-Yawir will serve as head of the U.S.-appointed council until the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June.