Bombing kills Shi'ite politician in Baghdad
Victim was part of Sadr's movement
BAGHDAD - A roadside bomb killed a prominent member of Moqtada al-Sadr's political movement yesterday, raising fears of new internal Shi'ite bloodshed ahead of regional elections expected in January.
The victim's allies blamed US and Iraqi forces for the blast. Suspicion also fell on Shi'ite splinter groups - some with suspected links to Iran, which has sheltered Sadr for nearly 18 months.
Saleh al-Auqaeili, considered a moderate within Sadr's movement, was traveling in a convoy with other Shi'ite lawmakers when the bombing occurred about 200 yards from an Iraqi Army checkpoint in mostly Shi'ite eastern Baghdad, a colleague said.
Auqaeili died at a hospital, Sadrist spokesman Ahmed al-Massoudi said. One commuter on a motorcycle was also killed in the blast, police said.
Sadr's followers have long opposed the US military presence in Iraq, and some of them were quick to blame the Americans and their Iraqi allies, citing the movement's opposition to a US-Iraqi security agreement that has been under negotiation for months.
"The occupation forces sent us a message by staging this attack because of our stance against the agreement," said Massoudi, the Sadrist spokesman.
Later, however, the Sadrist political department called the killing a "terrorist act of criminal gangs," a phrase often used to describe renegade Shi'ite militants that the US believes are trained and armed by Iran. Tehran denies links to Iraqi Shi'ite militants.
Major Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for the US military's Baghdad command, said the attack appeared to have been carried out by "unaligned" Shi'ite groups.
Police detained 14 people for questioning, including 12 members of a government-run security force that protects a power station near the blast site.
The attack reflects tension within the Shi'ite community following the splintering of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which fought US and Iraqi troops for weeks in Baghdad's Sadr City district until a cease-fire last May.
Shi'ite politicians negotiated the truce that enabled the Iraqi Army to take control of the sprawling Sadr City slum, which had been Sadr's stronghold in the capital for years.
But some militia fighters were angered at what they considered a "sell-out" by Shi'ite politicians and refused to heed Sadr's orders transforming the Mahdi militia into an unarmed social movement. US and Iraqi officials also fear a rise in violence ahead of provincial elections due by Jan. 31.
Much of the concern has focused on regional contests in the heavily Shi'ite south, where parties in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki face a strong challenge by Sadr's followers.
The US commander in charge of southern Iraq warned yesterday that he expects "nefarious" Iranian meddling in the provincial balloting - including bombings and "assassinating prominent candidates" as the elections approach. His comments were not linked to the Auqaeili killing.
"There's no doubt that Iran influences Iraq," Major General Michael Oates told reporters. "The risk would come if they seek to influence the election using some nefarious operations or surrogates or they raise the level of violence in the country."
Several followers of Sadr have been targeted in past attacks, but yesterday's bombing was notable because it occurred in an area that is considered relatively secure.
Falah Hassan Shanshal, who was traveling in the same convoy, said the group became suspicious when discovering there were no traffic jams in the usually crowded area.