A top Shi'ite escapes assassination as blast kills 15 in Iraq
Largest Sunni party pulls out of election
BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber killed 15 people yesterday in an assassination attempt on the head of Iraq's strongest Shi'ite party before parliamentary elections next month, while the biggest Sunni Muslim political group dealt a blow to ballot plans by withdrawing from the campaign because of the lack of security.
Meanwhile, in an audiotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera satellite television, a man purported to be Osama bin Laden endorsed Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and called for a boycott of elections.
The bomber tried to drive his car through the gate at the home of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but detonated his explosives when guards blocked the way.
Fifteen people died and at least 50 were wounded in the explosion, which shook Baghdad's Jadiriyah district and sent a cloud of smoke billowing into the sky, police Captain Ahmed Ismail said. Thirty-two cars on the street were destroyed or damaged. Hakim, who was inside, was not hurt.
Hakim heads the 228-candidate list of the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes parties and individuals from all Iraqi ethnic and religious groups but is dominated by Shi'ites, who account for about 60 percent of the country's population. Backed by Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the coalition is widely expected to dominate the postelection constitutional assembly and play a key role in formulating Iraq's new national charter.
Just hours after the blast, the leader of a moderate Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced that the group had reversed its earlier decision to take part in the Jan. 30 elections.
''The security situation keeps going from bad to worse and has to be dealt with," Mohsen Abdel-Hamid said.
The two events underlined the difficulties that the insurgency is causing for Iraq's interim government and the US-led military coalition in trying to hold credible national elections -- the first free ballot since the overthrow of the monarchy 46 years ago.
In urging a boycott of the election, the voice on the Al-Jazeera tape described Zarqawi as the ''emir" of Al Qaeda in Iraq and called on Muslims there ''to listen to him." Last month Zarqawi declared allegiance to bin Laden and changed the name of his group, which is responsible for numerous car bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages in Iraq, to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Continuing attacks and intimidation have led senior Sunni political and religious leaders to call for a postponement of the vote until the insurgency is brought under control.
The Iraqi Islamic Party said its decision to pull out of the race did not mean it would not take part in a future ballot. ''The party's desire is to take part in the future, should the requirements for its success be available," it said.
Party Secretary General Tarek al-Hashemi acknowledged the withdrawal would leave minority Sunnis underrepresented in the assembly elected Jan. 30, but added: ''We believe when a house is on fire, you should first put out the fire before working on decorating and arranging it."
Shi'ites constitute by far the biggest community in Iraq, with Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds making up 20 percent each. Many people in Iraq and abroad fear the legitimacy of the election will be brought into question if Sunnis refrain from voting.
Shi'ite political and religious leaders also have sharply criticized the US-led response to the insurgency, saying Iraqis themselves would have been more effective in countering the mainly Sunni insurgency. But Shi'ite leaders also strongly back going ahead with next month's vote even though they have been repeatedly targeted by the insurgents since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Since the modern Iraqi state was set up by British colonialists in the aftermath of World War I, it has always been dominated politically and economically by the Sunni minority, and Shi'ite leaders are eager to translate their numerical superiority into political power.
Yesterday's suicide attack was the second aimed at a leader of Hakim's party on the same block. On Nov. 7, a car bomb exploded near the home of Iraq's finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, killing one of his guards but missing Mahdi.
After yesterday's blast, Hakim denounced the interim government's security apparatus, claiming it had been infiltrated by Hussein loyalists.
''We hold the Iraqi government responsible for such criminal acts. This government has adopted the same wrong policies that were adopted by the occupation forces in dealing with security," he told Iraq's Al-Furat Television.
The residence where Hakim has his home and office was previously the house of Tariq Aziz, one of Hussein's senior aides who has been in prison since shortly after the US-led invasion last year.
Hakim's elder brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, also a Shi'ite cleric and a former leader of the party, was killed by a suicide bomber in August 2003. Both brothers opposed Hussein from exile in Iran before returning to Iraq after last year's US-led invasion.
In other developments, two US soldiers were killed by separate roadside explosions, the military said yesterday. One soldier died and a second was wounded when a bomb hit a patrol in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. Another soldier was killed and four were wounded by a bomb in Baghdad.
The latest casualties brought to at least 1,325 the number of US troops who have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war in March 2003.