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Sunni on Constitution Panel Slain

Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the cafeteria of Baghdad’s convention center Tuesday, Sunni Arab law professor Mijbil Issa defended his participation in a panel writing the new Iraqi constitution and said he felt immune to the insurgent-led violence gripping the country.

In an interview, Issa described Sunni Muslim insurgents as fellow travelers, saying, “I understand them and they understand me because we share the same ideology.

“I will not advise them to give up their weapons or join the political process as long as there are foreign invaders occupying Iraq,” said Issa, referring to U.S.-led troops.

Less than an hour later, he was dead.

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Issa; Thamen Hossein Obeidi, a Sunni Arab legal scholar advising the 71-member constitution committee; and a man identified as Aziz Ibrahim were killed when gunmen fired a barrage of bullets into their car on a busy commercial street.

Although no group has claimed responsibility, authorities believe that insurgents assassinated them for participating in the political process. Insurgent leaders, including Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, have promised to kill Sunnis who participated in the writing of the constitution.

An hour before he was assassinated, Issa had agreed to meet a reporter to discuss Sunni Arab participation in writing the constitution.

Between long drags on the cigarettes he chain-smoked, Issa sounded defiant, criticizing the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. He pounded the table as he spoke.

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Issa insisted that he didn’t fear for his life because he felt an affinity with the insurgents. He spoke of eschewing the security measures adopted by many Iraqi officials.

“I don’t care if some people claim that members of the resistance want to kill me,” he said. “There are no concrete blocks around my house. Walls separate us from the people, and that doesn’t help the political process. Concrete blocks should be used to rebuild Iraq.”

He added, “We walk on the street among the people without any weapons or armored vehicles.

“I’m not the resistance. I’m a politician. But I speak the same language as the resistance.”

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A towering, mustachioed man in his 50s who preferred suits and ties to traditional Arab garb, Issa often acted as a spokesman for the Sunni Arabs on the committee, his colleagues said. He was known as a hard-line Arab nationalist. He insisted that Iraqis belonged to the Arab nation and rejected calls for Kurdish autonomy.

Issa was among 15 Sunni Arabs who joined the constitutional committee last month in a government effort to woo the disgruntled minority into the political process.

Two Sunni members of the committee have gone into hiding as a result of death threats against them printed on fliers and posted at mosques, said Humam Hamoodi, a Shiite Muslim who chairs the constitutional committee.

The assassinations of Issa and Obeidi, which brought a halt to the committee’s deliberations Tuesday, could dissuade other Sunni leaders from working on the constitution and hamper efforts to meet an Aug. 15 deadline for completing its draft.

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Issa left Baghdad’s convention center, the headquarters of the National Assembly and constitutional committee, shortly after 3 p.m. following a day of meetings with colleagues and journalists.

Witnesses said Issa’s blue Peugeot sedan halted when a Toyota sedan suddenly stopped in front of it on Karada Street, near a stretch of upscale stores and restaurants. Gunmen pulled up in another car behind Issa’s and opened fire.

The gunmen, wearing street clothes and apparently in no hurry to flee the scene, walked up to the car and continued to riddle it with as many as 200 bullets, said Rayhan Hadidi, a cigarette vendor who witnessed the attack.

“The attackers stepped down from their vehicles and kept on shooting,” said Ali, a local shopkeeper who declined to give his last name.

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Though Shiite militiamen have recently tried to settle old scores by killing Sunnis, including former members of Saddam Hussein’s government, the execution-style killings Tuesday echoed slayings carried out by members of Iraq’s once-feared intelligence services.

A doctor at Baghdad’s private St. Raphael Hospital said Issa and the two other victims were dead before a panicked shopkeeper drove them to the hospital shortly before 4 p.m.

Issa’s driver suffered gunshot wounds and was fighting for his life Tuesday evening, authorities said.

Issa’s death followed Monday’s slaying in Mosul of Abdul Ghani Naimi, the brother of Abdul Rahman Naimi, another Sunni Arab member of the constitutional committee.

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Sunni Arabs make up about 20% of Iraq’s population and were favored under Hussein’s government. They fill the ranks of a violent insurgency against Iraqi and U.S.-led foreign forces. Sunnis mostly boycotted or otherwise shunned the Jan. 30 election that ushered in a new Shiite- and Kurdish-led government.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari’s coalition has been courting Sunni Arabs to help quash the insurgency.

Some colleagues called Issa a voice of moderation.

“He always talked in conciliatory terms,” said Saadoun Zubaidi, another Sunni member of the committee.

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“He had a strong argument against extremist views issued by the committee. This is what happens when you establish a mentality of retaliation and vengeance.”

As word of the deaths spread, other political leaders reacted with shock.

“The terrorists don’t make any difference between Sunni, Shiite or Kurd,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee. “Whoever works for the government or the constitutional process is a potential victim.”

Rajaa Khuzai, a secular Shiite member of the committee, shook her head in disbelief when she heard of the killing.

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“I am very upset. I was just sitting with him yesterday for an hour, and he was telling me about his background.”

Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin and Shamil Aziz, special correspondent Delphine Minoui and a special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.


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