December 29, 2004 in Nation/World

Rebel attacks surge ahead of elections

Dusan Stojanovic Associated Press
 
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(Full-size photo)

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A powerful explosion in a house in west Baghdad killed at least 29 people and wounded 18, police said today. They described the blast as an ambush staged by insurgents.

Police were en route to a raid in Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood late Tuesday after an anonymous call tipped them about a suspected militant hideout in the neighborhood, an official at the Ghazaliya police station said.

As they were about to enter the house, an explosion erupted from inside, he added.

At least 29 people were killed, including seven policemen, and 18 were injured. Six houses collapsed in the blast and several people were believed to be trapped under the rubble.

The police official said the attack was “evidently an ambush” and that “massive amounts of explosives” were used.

Insurgents regularly target Iraq’s security forces in their bid to undermine security and reconstruction in Iraq. The militants killed at least 25 people, including Iraqi policemen and a deputy governor, across Iraq on Tuesday.

The string of attacks – including one in which 12 policemen’s throats were slit in their station – were the latest by the insurgency targeting Iraqis working with the American military or the U.S.-backed government ahead of the Jan. 30 national elections.

Meanwhile, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group claimed responsibility Tuesday for an assassination attempt against the leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite Muslim party that killed 15 people and wounded more than 50. Shiite party leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who was not in the targeted Baghdad office but in his adjacent house, was not hurt.

Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, assistant brigade commander in the 1st Cavalry Division that controls Baghdad, said attacks by insurgents are expected to escalate further in the run-up to the ballot.

“We anticipate that the enemy will (continue with) attacks, intimidation, assassinations and other messages designed to destroy life in Baghdad,” Hammond said, adding that Iraqi security forces will bear the brunt of providing security for the elections and that U.S. troops will back them up only if needed.

Iraqi leaders said the guerrillas – who are mostly Sunni Muslims and have been blamed for attacks against Iraq’s Shiites – are bent on triggering ethnic strife before next month’s poll.

“The terrorists intend to destroy Iraq’s national unity,” a statement issued by the Interim National Assembly said. “Their intentions are to harm this country which faces crucial challenges amid a very difficult period.”

Shiite Muslims, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s people, have been strong supporters of the elections, which they expect to reverse the longtime domination of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The insurgency is believed to draw most of its support from Sunnis, who provided much of Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party membership.

Near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, gunmen attacked a police station, overwhelmed 12 Iraqi policemen there, slit their throats and then blew up the building, said Lt. Col. Saad Hmoud, a local police official.

The deputy governor of the restive Anbar province, Moayyad Hardan al-Issawi, was assassinated near Ramadi, east of Baghdad, police official Abdel Qader al-Kubeisy said.

Gunmen who shot him left a statement next to his body: “This is the fate of everyone who deals with the American troops.” The statement was signed by the group Mujahedeen al-Anbar, or “holy warriors of Anbar.”

Such flagrant attacks appear designed to cause panic among Iraqi officials and security forces and to provoke a sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.

Militants released a videotape Tuesday, saying they have executed eight and released two Iraqis who were employed by Sandi Group, an American security company, and had been held hostage since Dec. 13. The claim could not be independently verified.

The insurgents claiming to represent three Iraqi militant groups – the Mujahedeen Army, the Black Banner Brigade and the Mutassim Bellah Brigade – said in the tape obtained by APTN that “the eight have been executed because it was proven that they were supporting the occupational army.” The other two will be released for lack of evidence, a statement by one of the militants read.

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