- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

BAGHDAD — A purported new message from Osama bin Laden yesterday condemned all Iraqis who cast ballots in upcoming elections as “infidels,” and it endorsed Abu Musab Zarqawi, the terrorist leader who is attempting to halt the Jan. 30 vote.

Hours before portions of the audiotape aired on the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera, suicide terrorists bombed the Baghdad home of a top Shi’ite political leader, and Iraq’s main Sunni political group said it would boycott the elections.

Al Jazeera said the speaker repeated a call from an earlier tape by bin Laden for attacks on oil installations.

On Iraq’s upcoming elections, it said:

“The constitution imposed by the American occupier Bremer is blasphemous … and anyone who takes part in this election consciously and willingly is an infidel.”

L. Paul Bremer directed the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which drafted a temporary constitution before handing power to the present interim Iraqi government in June.

Before the new tape surfaced, a suicide car bomber killed 15 persons while attacking the home of Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Mr. Hakim remained inside the house through the bombing and was not hurt.

“This is nothing new,” said Saad Qindeel, a Hakim confidant and a top official in SCIRI. “This was a criminal act by former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with the help of outside terrorists.”

Mr. Hakim heads the 228-candidate list of the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes SCIRI, other parties and people from all Iraqi ethnic and religious groups but is dominated by Shi’ites, who account for about 60 percent of the country’s population.

Backed by Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the coalition is widely expected to dominate the postelection assembly and play a key role in formulating a permanent constitution.

Just hours after the blast, the leader of a moderate Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced that the group had reversed its earlier decision to take part in the Jan. 30 elections.

“The security situation keeps going from bad to worse and has to be dealt with,” said party leader Mohsen Abdel-Hamid.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope nationwide democratic elections to create a 275-seat national assembly and a new government will cool the country’s simmering political passions and stanch a violent rebellion by Sunni Arabs, who resent their diminished status after last year’s American-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

A key leader of the Sunni insurgency, the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, is behind numerous suicide bombings and hostage beheadings. Last month, he declared his allegiance to bin Laden and changed the name of his group to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Yesterday’s tape described Zarqawi as the “emir” of al Qaeda in Iraq and called on Muslims there “to listen to him.”

The insurgency already has cost the lives of more than 1,300 U.S. troops, including two killed by separate roadside bombs yesterday, the military announced.

Iraq’s six-week campaign season, begun 12 days ago, appears to have raised sectarian tensions. Deadly car bombings last week in the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the assassination of one Shi’ite candidate earlier this month and yesterday’s attack on Mr. Hakim appear aimed at driving the country’s two Muslim sects into civil war.

Many Sunni Arabs, especially religiously observant ones with ties to the restive cities of Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi, now say they won’t participate in the vote.

Yesterday’s withdrawal by the Iraqi Islamic Party squelches one of the few channels for Iraq’s religious Sunni Arabs to peacefully pursue their political interests.

although bin Laden’s purported message is considered unlikely to sway many Iraqi voters, it threatens to embolden violent Iraqi groups.

U.S. officials worry about a lopsided election result in which pro-American Kurds and majority Shi’ites vote heavily, but Sunnis stay home.

In several published reports, American officials have floated the idea of guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of seats or ministerial posts to avoid the prospect of further alienating them.

But Iraqi officials have dismissed the proposal.

SCIRI, which tops a 228-candidate Shi’ite electoral slate, is favored to win big in the upcoming elections.

SCIRI’s former leader and Mr. Hakim’s older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, was killed in a car bombing as he left the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf last year.

Mr. Qindeel said the group would continue what he called a “low-key” political campaign relying on word of mouth rather than flashy advertisements and boisterous rallies that could attract the attention of terrorists.

Fear of violence has stifled political activity.

Sunni political officials speak of blood-curdling threats, usually in the form of letters slipped into the party’s headquarters in the Yarmouk section of Baghdad.

Most are directed against Mr. Abdel-Hamid, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

“You’ll be killed,” a typical letter states. “You are outside of Islam. You must get out of this process.”

A top official of the Iraqi Islamic Party also criticized Iraq’s Independent Election Commission, a nonpartisan panel organizing the elections, for moving its offices deep inside the green zone, the country’s U.S.-protected administrative garrison.

The commission’s presence in the green zone cuts it off from political candidates with questions or requests.

“The commission is hidden inside the green zone,” the official said. “We want it to be easily accessible.”

The Iraqi Islamic Party’s name will remain on the ballot. Election officials said it was too late to remove it because the ballots already had been printed.

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