- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s interim prime minister warned yesterday that terrorists are trying to foment sectarian civil war as well as derail elections, while thousands of mourners turned out for funerals in the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala a day after car bombs killed 67 persons.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the mainly Sunni Muslim terrorists blamed for Sunday’s bloody attacks want to “create ethnic and religious tensions, problems and conflicts … to destroy the unity of this country.”

“These attacks are designed to stop the political process from taking place in Iraq,” Mr. Allawi told reporters. He added that his administration would not be deterred despite expecting more strikes before key Jan. 30 parliamentary elections — the first free vote in Iraq since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.

Although members of his Cabinet have made similar warnings about the danger of a civil war, Mr. Allawi himself had regularly played down that possibility.

Political and religious leaders of the Shi’ite community also have discounted the threat of an armed conflict with Sunnis, instructing their followers not to react violently to attacks. These included a bombing in August 2003 that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the main Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

In an attack in Karbala yesterday, a bomb exploded at a police checkpoint, damaging nearby buildings but inflicting no casualties. Police said they arrested the attacker. In Najaf, police said they defused a bomb stashed in a car.

Shi’ite Muslims, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s people, have been strong supporters of the electoral process, in 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 Ba’ath Party leadership.

Shi’ite officials and clerics blamed Sunnis for Sunday’s bombings, which caused the worst carnage in Iraq since July. The strikes appeared designed to cause heavy casualties and provoke reprisals by Shi’ites against Sunnis.

Najaf police Chief Ghalib al-Jazaari said 50 persons had been arrested in connection with the bombings. Some of them confessed to having links with the intelligence services of neighboring Syria and Iran, he said.

The bombings at a funeral procession in Najaf and a packed bus station in Karbala again highlighted the capability of the terrorists to strike. Their attacks have undermined confidence in repeated claims by U.S. military commanders that the capture of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah last month dealt a serious blow to the insurgency.

President Bush said yesterday that violence remains a significant problem in Iraq and said U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over security duties. He also cautioned that the election is only the beginning of a long process toward democracy.

The head of Iraq’s electoral commission appealed to security forces to protect his officials after three were fatally shot in a daylight attack Sunday by dozens of terrorists in the heart of Baghdad. The ambush was the latest attack to target Iraqi officials working to organize the vote.

Mr. Allawi said yesterday that a big factor in the strength of the insurgency was the dismantling of Iraq’s security forces after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam’s regime.

“What is happening is that we are facing an enemy heavily supported even in some cases with superior weapons,” he said. “We will have setbacks, we are having setbacks, but we are determined to continue the fight.”

There have been fears the intimidation campaign aimed at electoral workers will not only hurt preparations for the ballot, but also could reduce voter turnout enough to bring the legitimacy of the election into question.

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