- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — Car bombs rocked Iraq’s two holiest Shi’ite cities yesterday, killing at least 62 persons, while in downtown Baghdad dozens of gunmen carried out a brazen ambush on a car, pulling out three election officials and executing them on the pavement in the middle of morning traffic.

The bombs, which also wounded 120, exploded an hour apart. First, a suicide blast ripped through parked minibuses at the entrance to the Karbala bus station. Then a car bomb shattered a central square in Najaf, crowded with residents watching a funeral procession. The city police chief and provincial governor were in the group, but were not hurt.

Also yesterday, a militant group claimed to have kidnapped 10 Iraqis working for an American security contractor, threatening to kill them unless the company pulls out of Iraq.

The violence was the latest in a terrorist campaign to disrupt the crucial Jan. 30 elections, the first national balloting since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.

While many have feared that voting in the Sunni areas of northern and central Iraq will be hampered — if not impossible — because of the spiraling violence, yesterday’s attacks highlighted that even the strongholds of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority in the south are vulnerable. Shi’ites have been strong supporters of the elections, which they are likely to dominate.

The car bomb in Najaf detonated in central Maidan Square, where a crowd of people had gathered for the funeral procession of a tribal sheik — about 100 yards from where Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi and police Chief Ghalib al-Jazaari were standing.

Youssef Munim, head of the statistics department at Najaf’s al-Hakim Hospital, said 47 persons were killed by the explosion and 69 were wounded. Two more who had died and 21 other wounded were taken to the nearby al-Zahraa Hospital, according to nurse Mohanad Abdul Redha.

“A car bomb exploded near us,” Mr. al-Zurufi said. “I saw about 10 people killed.”

Chief al-Jazaari thought he and Mr. al-Zurufi were the targets of the attack, in which he said three explosives went off at about 2:45 p.m. Neither of the men were hurt. It was not immediately clear what the other explosions were from.

Residents were pulling bodies from damaged shops at the square, which is about 400 yards from the Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest Shi’ite site in Iraq.

The bombing in Karbala, about 45 miles northwest of Najaf, destroyed about 10 passenger minibuses and set fire to five cars outside the crowded bus station. Firefighters tried to put out the blazes as ambulances ferried burned and bleeding casualties to the nearby al-Hussein hospital.

Ali al-Ardawi, assistant for the hospital’s director, said 13 persons were killed in the attack and 33 injured.

It was the second bombing in Karbala in a week. On Wednesday, a bomb went off at the city’s gold-domed Imam Hussein Shrine, killing eight persons and wounding 40 in an apparent attempt to kill a top aide to Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The shrine, located near the bus station, was hit by a March 2 suicide bombing that killed 85 persons and wounded 100. The holy sites in Najaf and Karbala, south of Baghdad, house the tombs of Shia Islam’s most revered saints.

Terrorists yesterday also carried out a new attack on election officials, when about 30 militants hurling hand grenades and firing machine guns attacked a car carrying five employees of the nongovernmental Independent Electoral Commission as they were driving to work on Baghdad’s central Haifa Street, the scene of repeated clashes between security forces and insurgents.

Pistol-wielding gunmen — their faces not covered — pulled three of the employees out of the car and forced them to kneel in the road, while the traffic behind them on the thoroughfare came to a halt and panicked drivers tried to reverse away from the ambush site.

The gunmen punched one of the men as he lay on the ground, then the militants shot all three men at point-blank range. The two other passengers in the election employees’ car escaped and were not hurt.

The commission identified the slain men as Hatem Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, deputy director for the commission’s Karkh office, and two of his office employees — Mahdi Sbeih and Samy Moussa. The commission condemned the killings as a “terrorist ambush” and said one gunman was killed in the confrontation.

The commission “urges the Iraqi people and all its political, religious and social leaders and the authorities to condemn this inhumane crime,” it said in a statement.

Also, terrorists claiming to represent three Iraqi militant groups issued a videotape showing what they said were 10 abducted Iraqis who had been working for an American security and reconstruction company.

Masked terrorists in the video said they represent the Mujahideen Army, the Black Banner Brigade and the Mutassim Bellah Brigade, all previously unknown groups. Nine blindfolded hostages could be seen lined up against a stone wall and a 10th was lying in a bed, apparently wounded.

The militants said they would kill the hostages if the company, Sandi Group, does not leave the country. They also threatened more attacks on its Iraqi operations.

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