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.

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.

Possible insurgent leaders seized

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."

A poor shopkeeper steps forward

In Al Karkh, an old Baghdad district of winding alleys and traditional wooden homes whose second-story balconies lean precariously over the street, district council chairman Mustafa Zaidan al-Khaleefa knew he was in danger.

The poor shopkeeper had been receiving threats from supporters of the old regime since shortly after Baghdad fell, when he and a few friends decided to set up a representative council for their neighborhood.

Though his shop was tiny, he had a degree from the state administrative institute and a background in the theory of setting up a local government. When US forces arrived in the district, they set up elections for local councils, and Mr. Khaleefa won the chairmanship.

"We forced him to quit at first, but he wouldn't stay away,'' says his cousin Taufik al-Khaleefa, taking a break from Mustafa's funeral. "The people wanted him and he felt he could make a difference."

Mustafa was gunned down as he walked home on Monday evening along Haifa Street after having a soda with fellow council member Haider Mohandes. He left behind a wife and three school-age children. Sitting in the cramped office attached to a carpenter's workshop where they began meeting six months ago, a tearful Mohandes called his friend: "One of the real heroes of the new Iraq."

"He was so excited at the prospect of bringing democracy to Iraq,'' says Mohandes. "It's people like him who are going to make the difference."

Mohandes says two men jumped out of the shadows as they walked home, and one of them put Khaleefa in a choke-hold from behind and shot him repeatedly. They then sped off in a white Toyota, other witnesses said.

"I'd seen that car following us the day before,'' he says. "I should have known."

Just up the street at the renovated district council building, the front gate bears fresh evidence of democracy's enemies in a cone of shrapnel holes left by a grenade attack on Monday. Rashid Mehdi, one of the US-appointed guards there, says he's thinking of quitting. "We have 10 guards, but the Americans gave us only one Kalishnikov and 12 rounds - we can't protect them with this."

Mohandes says the local council will continue. "We will not be stopped by these attacks,'' he said. But he added he's worried about his own safety. "There are powerful parties trying to destroy any effort to build a democracy."

Concerns about security

That concern is particularly pronounced in Najaf, an overwhelmingly Shiite town that is home to one of the most important shrines in that branch of Islam. The Shiites were persecuted by the Sunni-dominated Baath regime, and mass graves outside town attest to the way Hussein handled Shiite dissent in the 1980s and 1990s.

The fear and anger among the local elites working with the coalition is palpable in a crowd of about 150 councilors, lawyers, and prosecutors who gathered, dressed in suits, at the courthouse on Wednesday to mark Shuwaili's murder and to protest against what they feel is insufficient security from the US-led coalition.

"There are a lot of people around here who lost their privileges after the Americans came,'' says Rashid al-Kharaji, a local lawyer. "They've formed ... clandestine groups and the coalition isn't doing anything to stop them."

Many of the lawyers and the judges in this group declined to be interviewed, saying they were afraid of reprisals. But as they began to organize for a march to the local coalition headquarters, it was clear the murder of Shuwaili had reopened wounds.

One of the judges exclaimed loudly: "How can we be safe when there still so many Baathists among us?" This prompted another judge, who felt targeted by the comments, to whirl on his colleague and grab his shirt. "A Baathist! You were an intelligence agent. I'm going to have a warrant issued for your arrest." The two nearly came to blows before being separated by colleagues.

There are more emotions in a meeting with the CPA representative for Najaf, Robert Ford, later in the day. Tarik Nasser, a local council member shouted that enough priority was not being given to their protection. "If a single American was killed the helicopters would still be hovering over head. But nothing has been done since this latest murder." Mr. Ford, an American diplomat, promised in Arabic that every effort would be made to catch those responsible but appealed for patience "during these very difficult days."

His assurances weren't enough for the local officials, and the meeting broke up with the judges and lawyers vowing to stay on strike until more men and weapons were provided to guard them.

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