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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Baghdad Governor Slain as Attacks in Capital Intensify

The New York Times > International > Middle East >Baghdad Governor Slain as Attacks in Capital Intensify
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 4 - Gunmen assassinated the governor of Baghdad Province today, the highest-ranking Iraqi official slain since May, not long after insurgents detonated a huge fuel-truck bomb that killed 10 people and wounded about 60 in central Baghdad, near the main American compound and an office of the Interior Ministry. At least eight of the dead were Iraqi commandos.

The governor, Ali al-Haidari, and several of his bodyguards were killed after he left his home this morning, according to the Interior Ministry. Mr. Haidari was the most senior Iraqi official assassinated since the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Ezzedine Salim, an Islamist politician and writer, was killed by a suicide bomber on May 17.

The steady violence in Iraq, which also claimed the lives of four American soldiers and a marine, prompted Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, to urge the United Nations to look into whether Iraq should go ahead with elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

"The United Nations, as an independent umbrella of legitimacy, should really take the responsibility by seeing whether that is possible or not," Mr. al-Yawar, a Sunni Arab sheik, said in an interview with Reuters. "On a logical basis, there are signs that it will be a tough call to hold the election."

His comments pulled back from the position he expressed in Washington in December, when he and President Bush asserted that elections must go ahead as scheduled, despite the violence.

Despite Mr. Yawar's new misgivings, that message was reiterated in Washington and throughout the Bush administration today.

The chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that on Monday President Bush and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, had discussed the importance of the elections taking place as scheduled and that there had been "no discussion of delaying the election."

"Most of the country is in a secure-enough environment to proceed with those elections," Mr. McClellan said, adding that American forces were working with Iraqi security officers to improve conditions in places where they were not yet adequate so "as many people as possible can participate."

A senior State Department official in Iraq, who spoke to reporters in Washington via a Pentagon hookup, echoed that message. "I think absolutely the elections are going to be held on Jan. 30," the official said this afternoon, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules for what is termed a "background briefing." "I don't think there's any question out here in Iraq. And frankly, I don't think the security situation is deteriorating. I think the security situation is actually a little better than it was, say, six weeks ago" and that in "most of Iraq, the situation is not that bad, frankly."

The administration also got support from Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, who told reporters that the interim government was still determined to proceed with elections on Jan. 30.

In Phuket, Thailand, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he was saddened to learn of Governor Haidari's killing. "It once again shows that there are these murderers and terrorists, former regime elements in Iraq, that don't want to see an election," he said. "They don't want to see the people of Iraq choose their own leadership. They want to go back to the past."

The terror group headed by Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took credit for the attack in an Internet posting, calling Mr. al-Haidari an "autocrat" and his killing part of an effort to "liberate this city and all the country."

The Zarqawi group also took credit for detonating the fuel truck in western Baghdad this morning as it sped toward the commandos' outpost in the Qadissiya neighborhood. Witnesses said guards fired at the tanker as it hurtled toward them, killing the driver but failing to stop the tanker from exploding.

"The police had shot the suicide bomber, but the tanker moved on and killed most of those who were in the front gate, whether civilians or guards," a 23-year-old commando said. The insurgents, he said, "don't want elections to be held, the terrorists don't want a stable country here."

Muhammed Hashem, a 40-year-old laborer who lives nearby, said, "We woke up at 9 a.m. from the sound of the explosion, and saw window panes destroyed, and shrapnel everywhere."

"The place has been targeted before twice, the Americans and the police should have provided more security to it, but they haven't," Mr. Hashem said. "The Iraqi blood has become so cheap that we have people everyday killed for trivial reasons."

The two bloody attacks converged at the Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad. As victims from the tanker truck bombing were carried in, the widow of Governor Haidari stood with her 16-year-old son, Hussein. "We've got no one to turn to now," she said.

The American casualties came in three attacks, the military said. In northern Baghdad, three soldiers from the First Cavalry Division were killed and two were wounded about 11 a.m. local time by an improvised bomb. About 30 minutes later a soldier from the First Infantry Division was killed and one was wounded when a bomb exploded near Balad, the site of an American air base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The marine was killed while carrying out security operations with the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Al Anbar Province, a restive Sunni region west of the capital.

The violence today came a day after more than 20 Iraqis and Westerners were killed in five separate attacks that included car bombs, hidden artillery shells, and a booby-trapped, headless corpse. On Sunday, 18 Iraqi troops and one civilian were killed in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, when a suicide bomber detonated his four-wheel-drive vehicle next to a bus full of Iraqi national guardsmen.

While American military commanders say they believe the violence is designed to derail the national elections and throw Iraq into even deeper turmoil, several people interviewed at the scene of this morning's tanker bombing said the attack would only strengthen their resolve to vote.

"It's true that they don't want us to take part in the elections," a 26-year-old man wounded by the blast near the Interior Ministry office said, "but I am telling you that I am now more committed to go to the electoral centers and vote."

Christine Hauser, Zaineb Obeid and Layla Istifan contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and David Stout from Washington.

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