Attacks broaden as handover nears

A spate of assassinations in Iraq spurred Secretary of State Powell to warn Sunday of growing threats against officials.

The killings of two Iraqi ministry figures over the weekend has sent a grim message to the new interim administration: Government officials will still be considered targets after the US-led coalition cedes control on June 30.

The drive-by assassinations of a deputy foreign minister and an official from the education ministry underscore the vulnerability of Iraqi officials, many of whom are career civil servants with limited protection.

Government and coalition officials blamed the killings on "leftover supporters of Saddam Hussein's evil regime." But the true identity of the assassins and those responsible for an ever-widening circle of attacks against foreigners, Iraqi security personnel, and the infrastructure remains unclear. The insurgency has become multi-dimensional, ranging from small cells of Iraqi nationalists determined to drive out US-led occupation troops to transnational Islamist groups whose sole intention is to thwart US ambitions here, even at the expense of a stable Iraq.

US officials say the latest spate of attacks against Iraqi officials is deliberately timed to undermine the transfer of power on June 30. Yet, although there has been an upsurge in attacks as the deadline draws near, Iraqi leaders, including members of the now defunct Governing Council, have been routinely targeted since the insurgency gathered pace a year ago. In September, Aqila Hashemi was shot dead outside her home in Baghdad. Last month, Izzedine Salim, who held the Governing Council presidency in May, was killed. Several other council members have narrowly survived assassination attempts.

Shattered glass on a residential street marks the spot where Bassam Kuba, undersecretary for international affairs at the foreign ministry and a veteran diplomat, was killed early Saturday morning as he drove into work. Sitting in the passenger seat of his Mercedes, Mr. Kuba had barely traveled 100 yards from his house in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiyeh when a vehicle drew alongside and gunmen opened fire. His chauffeur, who was unhurt, drove him to a nearby hospital where the diplomat died.

"We heard the shooting while having breakfast. It was terrifying," says Zeena Khalil, who lives next door to the Kuba home. "I heard a car drive fast past our house. I thought they were looters."

Kuba, a former ambassador to China and adviser to Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, had just returned from New York where he was involved in negotiations over a UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. The Iraqi foreign ministry said Kuba had been a victim of a "sinister and cowardly attack."

It was the first fatal shooting of a government official since the new interim government was formed earlier this month. But Sunday, just 24 hours after Kuba's death, gunmen killed Kamal Jarrah, director of cultural relations at the education ministry, as he left for work.

The two killings were not the only attacks against Iraqi officials in recent days. Gen. Hussein Mustafa, who heads Iraq's border guards, narrowly escaped Saturday when gunmen fired at his two-vehicle convoy on a Baghdad highway. Ammar Safar, the deputy health minister, was attacked Wednesday on his way to work.

In other weekend violence, a Kurdish Sunni cleric was killed in Kirkuk in northern Iraq and a policeman there was gunned down in front of his family. A suicide car bomber blew himself up beside an Iraqi police patrol Sunday, killing up to 12 policemen.

In a glimmer of good news, the maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr indicated Friday that he will support the new government if it commits to a firm timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces. Analysts say the move signals a bid by Sadr to negotiate a compromise with the new government which could end two months of violence and stand-offs in southern Shiite cities.

Nonpolitical bureaucrats like Kuba and Mr. Jarrah, who continue to live without protection in Baghdad, are particularly susceptible to assassination. Politicians linked to political parties are protected by militiamen. Other senior Iraqis have US bodyguards and live in the Green Zone, the heavily guarded area in Baghdad that houses the Coalition Provisional Authority.

"We can't have 10 to 20 guards surrounding the home of every government official. It's just not practical," says Hamid al-Kifay, an Iraqi government spokesman. "The terrorists want to kill anyone connected to the government to score a media victory. The solution is to hunt down the terrorists."

One official at risk is Salem Chalabi, a US-trained lawyer who heads the tribunal that will try Mr. Hussein. Mr. Chalabi says he rarely spends more than a night in the same place and is surrounded by bodyguards.

"I do think about the risks a lot," he says. "My wife keeps trying to push me in a different direction. But I feel that what I'm doing is very important for the future of the country so I am willing to continue."

The interim government faces daunting challenges during its seven-month mandate, chief of which is stabilizing the country. It also faces an uphill struggle in convincing many Iraqis that it is a genuinely sovereign entity and not just a construct of the coalition.

"You couldn't trust at least 50 percent of the government to take a sheep from one house to another. They are thieves," says Abdel-Jaber al-Qubaysi, editor of Nida al-Watan newspaper and an outspoken champion of the Iraqi resistance. "We cannot accept any government created under occupation," he says.

With such sentiment, few expect a sudden improvement in stability after June 30. Many suggest the situation will deteriorate further.

"I think it will worsen. I hope the situation stays the same. But don't even think about it improving," says Saadoun al-Dulame, the executive director of the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies.

A recent poll by the center gave Ayad Allawi, the prime minister designate, and Ghazi al-Yawar, the president designate, among the lowest approval ratings of 17 prominent figures. In the poll, which was carried out before the formation of the new government, only 4.8 percent of those questioned "strongly support" Mr. Allawi while 39.5 percent "strongly oppose." Mr. Yawar fared slightly better, with 7 percent support and 17.1 percent opposing.

The dangers of public office are high and the rewards uncertain. Dara Noureddine, a former Governing Council member who is helping organize next month's conference to choose a temporary national assembly, adopts a fatalistic view: "We take our precautions and the rest is up to God."

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