The head of the Iraqi parliament’s largest Sunni Arab bloc was gunned down Friday by a teenager after delivering a weekly prayer sermon. The killing raised fears that the coming months would see a sharp rise in assassinations and other violence, as most American forces depart Iraqi cities and campaigning intensifies with national elections scheduled for January.
The teenager opened fire on Harith Obeidi, who led the Iraqi Accordance Front bloc in parliament, at the Shawaf mosque compound in west Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood.
Obeidi was shot twice in the head by the 15-year-old, who then opened fire on the lawmaker’s bodyguard and lobbed a hand grenade, a police official said. The boy killed four other people and wounded 12 before he was shot dead by mosque guards, the official said.
Accounts varied, with police saying Obeidi was shot after he had walked out of the mosque, whereas witnesses and some politicians said the teenager barged inside the religious sanctuary and then opened fire and tossed the grenade.
Obeidi, born in 1964, was dressed in a traditional white dishdasha robe and headdress as he delivered his weekly sermon, issuing a veiled criticism of the government over the continuing detention of Iraqis, held with limited access to the judiciary.
“Nobody can tell the leader, the ruler, the judge that you forgot that person. . . . And this detainee remains in the prison. Nobody knows about him except God!” said Obeidi, who served as the deputy chairman of parliament’s human rights committee.
He had championed the cause of Sunni prisoners who have languished in Iraqi prisons for years and had inspected prisons around the country to promote prisoners’ rights.
Politicians of all stripes joined in condemning the attack, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite whose relations with Obeidi’s parliamentary bloc have often been strained. Maliki promised an investigation into the assassination and said the attack appeared to be meant to ignite sectarian strife.
On Thursday, the prime minister had warned that he expected violence to increase ahead of the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. forces from cities and the coming national elections.
Obeidi’s Iraqi Accordance Front blamed the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack. The extremist organization has long targeted Sunni politicians it accuses of collaboration for participating in the U.S.-sponsored political process.
Late Friday night, a U.S.-allied Sunni paramilitary leader in west Baghdad, who calls himself Abu Essam, said Al Qaeda in Iraq had distributed fliers in Yarmouk that claimed responsibility for the assassination. Abu Essam, a member of the Sons of Iraq movement, described the fliers as reading: “Qaeda is coming. We are coming, Yarmouk residents.” The Times did not see the flier and could not confirm its contents independently.
“There are outlaws from Al Qaeda who we think were connected to this attack,” said Iraqi Accordance Front spokesman Salim Abdullah Jabouri.
“We hope this will not bring back sectarianism. Whoever says security is good, this is proof that security has not been implemented yet,” he said.
Jabouri said nearly 80 members of the Iraqi Accordance Front had been killed in the last two years. The bloc, which has an Islamist identity, has been strained in recent months by an internal dispute over who should be the parliament’s speaker.
The bloc has also been challenged by the rise of secular Arab nationalist parties, and the Sons of Iraq movement, which is credited with successfully fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, alongside the U.S. military.
Iraq’s security has improved dramatically in the last two years, but attacks occur regularly in Baghdad and in outlying provinces, including Nineveh and Diyala. At the height of the country’s sectarian warfare in 2006 and 2007, assassinations and suicide bombings escalated violence and tensions among Sunnis and Shiites. The U.S. troop buildup of 2007 has been credited with helping tamp down the bloodshed, but it is unclear how the American withdrawal from cities to bases outside will affect the situation over the long run.
Lawmakers spoke of Obeidi’s death as a bleak omen for Iraq’s political arena with elections approaching.
“We know that no decent politician is immune from being targeted in Iraq. We are not surprised that this would happen. Obeidi is not the first nor he will be the last,” said Omar Abdul Sattar Karbouly, a member of his bloc. “It is astonishing that this happens in a very well-protected area like Yarmouk.”
Time staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report