Leading Iraqi lawmaker killed, officials fear spread of violence

McClatchy NewspapersJune 11, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Iraq's leading Sunni lawmaker was assassinated Friday after he finished delivering prayers at a mosque in western Baghdad.

A 15-year old boy approached Harith al Obaidi in the al Shawaf mosque in the Yarmouk neighborhood and shot him several times, Iraqi police said.

A gun battle ensued, killing the teenage gunman. Three others died in the attack and 12 people were wounded, police said.

Accounts vary as to whether the gunman entered the mosque and shot Obaidi there, or whether the shooting began just outside the building. There were also unconfirmed reports that a grenade exploded during the attack.

A spokesman for Obaidi's political party, the Accordance Front, blamed Sunni extremists affiliated with al Qaida in Iraq for the assassination. The group has a long history of targeting fellow Sunnis who join the government.

The attack occurred in an upscale neighborhood that was home to many high-ranking officers from former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, and after the U.S. led invasion of 2003 became an insurgent stronghold.

Most Sunni leaders boycotted national elections in 2005 following the overthrow of Saddam, who was a Sunni. Since then, moderates like Obaidi have re-entered the political process.

Obaidi, an Islamic scholar, built a reputation for tolerance by campaigning for the rights of men detained by security forces. He was deputy chair of Iraq's Human Rights Committee and had recently become head of the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament.

The assassination, just days after a car bomb killed 35 in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood just outside the city of Nasariya, adds to growing fears that sectarian violence will escalate as U.S. combat troops pull out of big cities by the end of this month.

At a security conference in Baghdad's Green Zone on Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki blamed the Nasariya attack on Sunni insurgents trying to reignite the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq from 2005 until 2007.

Maliki warned that violence could increase as the American forces withdraw and insurgents test the Iraqi army, but he vowed the relative stability gained during the last year and a half would hold.

After news of Obaidi's assassination flashed across television screens, Iraqi President Jalal Talibani urged calm.

"I call on the Iraqi people to close ranks and enhance national unity in the face of powers that seek to provoke strife and destabilize the country," he said.

The 47-year Obaidi, a former college professor, was married and the father of eight children, said Shatha al Obusi, a fellow member of the Human Rights Committee.

She said he was a fun-loving man with an easy smile who succeeded in Iraq's fractious political arena because he accepted people from all sects.

"I believe that he was targeted for these qualities by people who would not have him succeed," Obusi said. "He was, and will continue to be, a role model to us regarding the issue of human rights and defending those who have fallen under injustice."

(Issa and Hammoudi are McClatchy special correspondents. Jack Dolan of the Miami Herald contributed.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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