In the new Iraq, local officials put lives on the line
Three Iraqi officials were slain this week, in a continuing campaign of assassinations.
Najaf's chief judge Muhan Jabr Shuwaili and chief prosecutor Aref Aziz had an ironclad routine. Every working morning since finishing law school together in 1979, they met outside their homes on this sleepy residential street to share the short trip to work.Skip to next paragraph
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But earlier this week, that routine was shattered forever when Shuwaili was assassinated by men who might be close to the old regime. His murder was one of an alarming string of killings targeting officials working with US authorities that could cost the coalition the support of its best domestic allies.
This week, Mosul judge Ismail Yussef Saddek and a member of a coalition-sponsored council in Baghdad were also assassinated; last week the US-appointed police chief in Amara and a deputy mayor of Baghdad were killed.
The Shuwaili assassination was methodical and well-planned, like many of the recent killings. Last Monday, Mr. Aziz woke up, prayed, had something to eat, and backed out of his driveway at about 8:30 a.m. As always, he tooted his horn for Shuwaili, who emerged from his low concrete house with a wave.
Then from behind a bush next to Shuwaili's gate, and from the garden across the street - "as if they were coming from out of the ground," Aziz recalled later - four men converged on the officials. Two grabbed Shuwaili, pistol-whipped him into near unconsciousness and dragged him to the car.
The others flashed their pistols at Aziz and forced both men into the back seat. As they drove off to kill him in the desert, a stunned Shuwaili blinked through the blood streaming down his face. "Why are you doing this?" One of the thugs cuffed him and answered: "We're doing this because Saddam wants you. Now shut up."
After blindfolding Aziz with his necktie and driving around with him for a few hours they dumped him in the desert, left alive to tell his harrowing tale.
Protecting local officials is just part of Iraq's multifaceted and increasingly difficult security problem. There are signs the murders are costing the US the cooperation of local officials, something it desperately needs as it seeks to hand over more and more authority to Iraqis. On Thursday, all of the prosecutors and judges in Najaf went on strike to demand more protection from the coalition.
But with attacks against US soldiers on the increase, resources are diverted to "force protection" and rooting out insurgents. Progress has been made in recent days: on Wednesday, two high-ranking Iraqi Army officers were captured in the Fallujah area west of Baghdad, the military said. The military identified the men as Lt. Gen. Khamis Saleh Ibrahim al-Halbossi and Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Adwan al-Alwani, both of whom were believed to have played a significant role in organizing the insurgency.
And even as US units continue to hunt for insurgents and mount large, organized raids, local Iraqi police are being trained by the coalition. Resources for arming and equipping them, however, are limited.
These latest murders seem to have moved down the chain of officialdom as security has improved for the top Iraqis working with the coalition. Akila al-Hashimi, a member of the US-appointed Governing Council, was assassinated in August.
In mid-October, Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloom survived an assassination attempt and many Governing Council members, like Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, are spending more and more time overseas. But there are literally thousands of potential targets in the next rung of government.
Coalition officials say there's little evidence to tie these killings together or prove that supporters of the ousted Saddam Hussein's Baath regime are behind them. But to the Iraqis who feel they're in the line of fire there is little doubt.
They point to the planning and coordination that seems to have gone into the killings, and many say they may quit because they doubt the US can guarantee their security.
"The men behind this are the Baathists, and I think they're working with foreign terrorists like Al Qaeda,'' says Najaf council member Majid al-Assadi, who is considering giving up his post. "I received threatening letters a few weeks ago calling me a collaborator. I told the coalition about it. But they can't do anything - if the Baathists want to get us, they'll get us."