Militants kidnap 3 senior Iraqi officials
Militants abducted three senior Iraqi officials, beheaded a man who worked for the U.S. military and killed at least four others, officials said Saturday, a day after a U.S. general warned that insurgents may be planning "horrific" attacks ahead of Jan. 30 elections.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, a senior deputy for Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said American leaders expected a rise in attacks before the election, but they had no intelligence indicating specific plots.
"I think a worst case is where they have a series of horrific attacks that cause mass casualties in some spectacular fashion in the days leading up to the elections," Lessel said Friday.
"If you look over the last six months, they have steadily escalated the barbaric nature of the attacks they have been committing. A year ago, you didn't see these kinds of horrific things."
In Washington, President Bush said the elections will be "an incredibly hopeful experience" despite rising violence and doubts that the vote will bring stability and democracy. He acknowledged security problems in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
"I know it's hard but it's hard for a reason," Bush said.
The comments came amid an escalating insurgency believed to be led by minority Sunnis, who dominated the country during Saddam Hussein's regime. In the election — the first democratic vote in Iraq since the country was formed in 1932 — the Sunnis are certain to lose their dominance to the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
Reflecting Shiites' demands to hold the vote as scheduled and Sunnis' calls for a boycott or postponement, two senior religious leaders expressed sharply differing views during Friday prayers.
"We want all the Iraqis to participate, we also insist on holding the elections as scheduled and to put these elections behind us as a way to end the conflict in Iraq," Saadr Aldeen al-Qubbanji, a leader of a prominent Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said in the southern city of Najaf.
But Sheik Mahmoud Al-Somaidie of the Sunnis' Association of Muslim Scholars favored postponing the vote.
"We all want elections, but we are seeking fair and free elections," he said in Baghdad. "Those of us who are calling for postponement are seeking that for the benefit of the country. Elections have to be an Iraqi demand, not the demand of the foreign countries."
The United States insists on holding the vote as scheduled and strongly opposes a postponement.
This week has seen a string of assassinations, suicide car bombings and other assaults that killed nearly 100 people, mostly Iraqi security forces, who are seen by the militants as collaborators with the American occupiers.
Authorities in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit said Saturday that gunmen abducted a deputy governor of a central Iraqi province and two other senior officials as they traveled to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most prominent Shiite leader, in the holy city of Najaf to discuss national elections.
The delegation was stopped and the members kidnapped about 40 miles south of Baghdad on Friday. The area is in the so-called "triangle of death," a string of Sunni-controlled towns that have been the scene of frequent attacks.
The U.S. military said the delegation was traveling in two cars — one of which managed to escape the militants' ambush.
"Those insurgents and terrorists who intimidate and resort to kidnapping public officials are the true enemies of the Iraqi people," said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien.
In Baqouba, insurgents broke into the house of a translator working with the U.S. Army and then beheaded him, police said Saturday. An Iraqi policeman was killed by masked gunmen as he left his house in Baghdad's southern Dora neighborhood.
A booby-trapped car blew up Saturday at a gas station in Mahaweel, about 35 miles south of Baghdad. One man was killed and several others were injured, police said.
In Baghdad's western neighborhood of Khadraa, gunmen shot dead Abboud Khalaf al-Lahibi, deputy secretary-general of the National Front for Iraqi tribes — a group representing several Iraqi tribes, said his aide, Ibrahim al-Farhan. A bodyguard was killed and three other people were wounded in the attack, he said.
Also Saturday, gunmen kidnapped Mohammed Khodr, a representative of the Human Rights Organization in Iraq, in the town of Riyadh, some 28 miles southwest of Kirkuk, police said.
The U.S. military said Saturday that 48 suspected insurgents were detained in separate search operations in different parts of Iraq on Friday.
A U.S. soldier also was killed Friday in a non-hostile vehicle accident in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said. The incident is under investigation, and the Marine's name was being withheld pending notification of the family.