14 January 2005 -- With a little more than two weeks to go before Iraq's national elections, violence continues to rage.
Insurgents are targeting Shi'a Muslims, coalition soldiers, foreign businessmen, and oil facilities -- all with the stated aim of disrupting Iraq's first democratic vote in half a century.
Shi'a leaders are urging calm after an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was shot and killed on 12 January as he returned home from evening prayers in the restive town of Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad. Sheikh Mahmud al-Mada'ini's son and four bodyguards were also killed.
An Islamist group today published an Internet message claiming responsibility for the killing and stating its intention to disrupt the elections.
Minority Sunnis, who enjoyed political dominance under now-deposed leader Saddam Hussein, fear they will be disenfranchised by the 30 January vote. A number of Sunni leaders have called for a boycott. There are fears that mounting violence and a probable Sunni boycott will fuel the insurgency and scuttle any chances of a free and fair vote.
Iraq's interim President Ghazi al-Yawir addressed the issue yesterday after talks in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac. "We [Chirac and I] were in total agreement on the subject of the elections," al-Yawir said. "The elections must take place on the date stated, and we must do everything in our power to encourage all Iraqis to participate, so they can fulfill their duty and exercise their right to participate in the first democratic election in Iraq."
Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'a Muslims, is not running for office but has taken a keen interest in the vote. He has urged Iraqi Shi'a to stay focused on the elections, and not to seek revenge for al-Mada'ini's killing.
Iraqi Shi'a cleric Jalal al-Din al-Saghir told Reuters yesterday the slaying is just one of many aimed at stopping the Shi'a's political rise. "The Shi'a sect is considered the main group [in Iraq], and one which is mainly concerned with the process of writing the constitution and the process of establishing a constitutional society and a constitutional state and organizing the distribution of power among Iraqis," al-Saghir said. "It also considers itself the main target of the dictatorship. So we cannot view this case [of al-Mada'ini's slaying] as an isolated event with no connection to the elections. On the contrary, this case is meant to paralyze us."
Other violent incidents were reported in Iraq, as well.
Seven Iraqis were killed by machine-gun fire in central Baghdad early yesterday as their employer, a Turkish businessman, was kidnapped by a group of armed men.
Four more Iraqis were killed and 13 injured yesterday when a car bomb detonated near a market in Khan Bani Sa'd, 30 kilometers north of Baghdad.
Three Kurdish peshmerga fighters were reported killed in a battle with insurgents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Insurgents also attacked an oil pipeline near the northern Iraqi city of Baiji, home to the country's biggest refinery. Iraqi Oil Minister Thamir Ghadban said yesterday that insurgents are attacking the country's oil infrastructure at least once a day. The attacks have caused fuel shortages and robbed the country of potential oil profits.
Three U.S. soldiers were also killed yesterday.
(compiled from wire reports)[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]