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Iraqi governor, police chief killed in blast

Times Staff Writer

baghdad -- The governor and acting police chief of a southern Iraqi province were killed Saturday in a roadside bombing, raising fears of a backlash in an area that has been beset with fighting between rival Shiite factions.

The attack occurred as Qadisiya Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and police Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were driving back to the provincial capital, Diwaniya, from the funeral of a prominent tribal leader, said Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Othman Ghanimi.

The governor’s driver and a guard were also killed in the blast, which ripped through their armored sport utility vehicle, said Ghanimi, who commands Iraqi forces in the area. A second bomb was defused at the scene, he said.

Rival factions have been vying for control of areas across Iraq’s overwhelmingly Shiite south. The governor was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the country’s two largest Shiite political groups, which also controls the Qadisiya provincial council.

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Hassan had been in the job less than two weeks and had yet to be confirmed by the provincial council. His predecessor was a reputed member of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

But radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr is also popular here. Members of his Al Mahdi militia have fought U.S.-led foreign forces and Iraqi troops, and they are believed to have infiltrated the local police. Residents blame the militia for a wave of assassinations in the city. The victims have included policemen, soldiers, teachers, even a popular wrestler.

“The Mahdi army is always behind these assassinations,” said Nasir Mohammed, a local intellectual expressing commonly held views in the town. “Their victims are not affiliated with any political party. But each one of them, whatever his connections are, when he encounters the Mahdi army, stands against them, he will be liquidated.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack, and security officials said they were investigating it. The policemen at a nearby checkpoint were detained for questioning, said Majid Muhanna, the governor’s office manager. But he emphasized, “We are not accusing any side.”

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An official with the governor’s party, Haitham Husseini, put the blame on “remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” which he said were trying to “disturb the peace” in Qadisiya.

Sadr’s followers were also quick to try to defuse the situation.

“We are very sorry for this big loss. It was horrible news for our city,” said Haider Shimari, one of Sadr’s representatives on the provincial council. “We really can’t accuse any particular side because there are many outsiders that entered the city to make problems.”

A curfew was imposed, and Iraqi security forces fanned out to prevent further violence in the city about 95 miles south of Baghdad. U.S. aircraft circled overhead, residents said.

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The Iraqi Cabinet expressed sorrow at the news and appealed for calm. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, also issued a statement expressing shock at the deaths in Qadisiya, as well as an attack at the home of a prominent Sunni cleric in Baghdad. “Building unity amid violence requires special commitment and courage,” the statement said.

A bomb exploded at the cleric’s home in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Shiite-dominated east Baghdad. Sheik Wathiq Ubaidi was not there at the time, but the blast killed his brother and injured two children, police said. Ubaidi, a former prayer leader at Abu Hanifa mosque, is known for his denunciations of sectarianism and of killings by the Sunni Arab militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, followers said.

South of the capital, hundreds of armed Shiite tribesmen converged Saturday on the outskirts of Najaf to offer their services to provincial leaders in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The participants accused militants in neighboring Al Anbar province of kidnapping or killing about 30 fellow tribesmen in the last year.

“We do not believe in sectarianism, but we know for sure that there are certain tribes providing a safe haven for the terrorists arriving from different countries, and we are ready to teach them a lesson,” said Sheik Habib Abdalilee, chief of the Albu-Khilawi tribe.

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He offered his support to an alliance of Al Anbar tribesmen who have joined with the United States in its fight against the insurgents they once harbored. U.S. officials have hailed the stand taken by the Al Anbar Salvation Council and sought to forge similar alliances elsewhere.

Iraqi Shiite leaders have been skeptical of the strategy, arguing that it legitimizes tribal militias who could turn their guns against the government.

Underlining the risks, one tribal leader said privately that some of those present Saturday had participated in a raid the previous day in which he alleged four Sunni tribesmen were abducted as bargaining chips to secure the release of four missing kinsmen. It was not possible to verify the claim.

The capital remained relatively calm after authorities lifted a three-day driving ban imposed to protect Shiite pilgrims traveling to a north Baghdad shrine for a religious holiday Thursday.

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Police recovered the bodies of 11 gunshot victims across the city. A roadside bomb killed another person and injured two in a mostly Shiite section of southeast Baghdad, police said.

U.S. forces killed five suspected insurgents and detained 20 in a series of raids over the last two days, the military said.

The U.S. military reported the death of a soldier Friday in a noncombat incident. No further details were provided about the case, which is under investigation.

At least 3,684 U.S. personnel have died since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Saif Rasheed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Baghdad, Hillah and Taji contributed to this report.

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