- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — Suicide bombers assassinated Iraq’s top political leader yesterday at an entrance to the Green Zone, the latest in a series of strikes as the June 30 transfer of power to an Iraqi government approaches.

Izzadine Saleem, president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, died along with at least six others as his convoy waited to enter the U.S.-protected compound in central Baghdad.

The morning blast, which sent bystanders screaming and shot a column of black smoke into the air, injured at least 15, including two American soldiers.

U.S. officials said the attack would not derail plans to hand power back to Iraqis on June 30.

“Mr. Saleem died working to build a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

“The Iraqi people will continue his work and see to it that such a vision becomes a reality.”

Mr. Saleem, a Shi’ite Muslim who also was known as Abdel-Zahraa Othman, held the rotating presidency of the Governing Council this month.

A group calling itself the al-Rashid Brigades took responsibility for the killing on an Islamic Web site, hailing the death as a “heroic operation which led to the death of the mercenary traitor.”

Iraqis working with the U.S.-led coalition have been targeted by several terrorist groups that are attempting to disrupt the transfer of power from the coalition to an Iraqi government.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented the loss, describing Mr. Saleem as one of Iraq’s “most loyal and patriotic citizens, a man who made every sacrifice for his country.”

“The efforts to bring stability to Iraq will continue, and I hope this tragic event will not disrupt it,” Mr. Annan said.

The Governing Council selected Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim civil engineer from northern Iraq, to succeed Mr. Saleem.

“God willing, the criminal forces will be defeated despite all the pain they are causing to our people and their heroic leaders,” Mr. al-Yawer said in an appearance with several members of the council.

U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is in the country working on the political transition process, had just spent three days with Mr. Saleem in his home city of Irbil.

Mr. Saleem was the second member of the 25-member council to be assassinated. Aquila al-Hashemi was killed by gunmen in September.

Eyewitnesses said the blast caused several buildings to catch fire and set off secondary explosions. Small-arms fire also was heard as Iraqi police, ambulances and U.S. soldiers rushed to the scene.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman, said the car bomber had been waiting in a line of cars outside one of the less frequently used back entrances to the large complex in central Baghdad, where the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority also has its headquarters.

Iraqi political leaders on the Governing Council called on the United States to take the bombing as a sign that the planned turnover of sovereignty had to be more than merely a political transition.

“The U.S. security plan for Iraq has failed,” Ahmed Chalabi told the Reuters news agency. “There is no alternative except to adopt a definition of sovereignty that includes full control over the security forces.”

Another council member, Mahmoud Othman, blamed the bombing on those linked to al Qaeda.

The bombing resembled numerous attacks by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan who has links to al Qaeda.

The CIA thinks Zarqawi was the masked man who beheaded American civilian Nicholas Berg last week.

Mr. Annan said the violence was not likely to end with the transfer of power.

“There are others who will continue resisting and fighting until perhaps every foreign soldier has left Iraq. Obviously, there are elements on the ground who are against the process, who do not want it to succeed,” he said.

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