- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — A roadside bomb killed a governor in southern Iraq yesterday, the second provincial boss assassinated in nine days and a likely prelude to an even more brutal contest among rival Shi’ite militias battling for control of some of Iraq’s main oil regions.

Iraqi police blamed the attack on the powerful Mahdi Army, whose fighters are nominally loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr but have recently broken away as factions to set their own course.

The showdowns in southern Iraq — pitting Mahdi groups against the mainstream Shi’ite group in parliament — could intensify as the British forces overseeing the south gradually withdraw in the coming months.

Meanwhile, a range of initiatives, both political and diplomatic, reached a near-dizzying pace as the Sept. 15 deadline approaches for the Bush administration to report to Congress on its Iraq policies.

During the second day of a groundbreaking fact-finding tour, the French foreign minister warned Iraqi officials against complacency in the face of violence.

And Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sought improved relations and help in the immediate neighborhood at the start of a three-day mission to Syria. Iran said its firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, soon would make his first visit to the Iraqi leader in Baghdad.

An equally intense round of political meetings was held in Baghdad as Mr. al-Maliki and his Shi’ite and Kurdish allies have sought to entice moderate Sunnis into a new alliance formed last week to try to save the government from collapse.

The viability of Mr. al-Maliki’s government — and its ability to enact U.S.-backed reforms — will be among the main themes of next month’s progress report to lawmakers.

The U.S.-led mission to regain control of Baghdad and central Iraq — with the help of 30,000 additional U.S. troops — is intended to give the Iraqi leadership more time to exert its authority.

The offensive, announced Feb. 14, achieved some notable successes against extremists. But at the same time, Mr. al-Maliki’s government was crippled by defections and boycotts by both Sunni and Shi’ite groups.

Sheik al-Sadr, once a key government ally, predicted in an interview with Britain’s Independent newspaper that Mr. al-Maliki’s leadership role is doomed because he is seen as a “tool for the Americans.”

Yesterday’s roadside-bombing killed Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani as herode to his office in the provincial capital of Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad. His driver and a guard also died. His office manager and two other guards were seriously wounded, police said.

Authorities clamped a curfew on Samawah. New checkpoints were erected.

On Aug. 11, a roadside bombing killed the governor and police chief of Qadasiyah, another southern province. Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza and Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were returning to the provincial capital of Diwaniyah from a funeral for a tribal sheik.

Both governors were members of a very powerful group among Shi’ite political organizations, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists, who dominate the police in the south of Iraq, have been fighting Mahdi Army militiamen for dominance in the oil-rich south.

At least five provincial governors — all Shi’ites — have been killed in Iraq, with three assassinated in the 2004-05 period by Sunni insurgents.

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