- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — A senior Sunni lawmaker was killed after delivering a sermon during Friday prayers at a mosque in a former insurgent stronghold in western Baghdad, raising fears that violence could escalate ahead of Iraq’s national elections next year.

Harith al-Obeidi, who led the main Sunni bloc in parliament, was known as a fierce advocate of human rights and the rights of mainly Sunni detainees — issues that have been flashpoints in relations between the disaffected Islamic minority and the Shiite-led government.

Police said a gunman shot al-Obeidi as he left the mosque. The assailant was chased a few hundred yards down the street by mosque guards and then detonated a grenade, killing himself and an undetermined number of pursuers.

The daylight shooting was the latest example of the militants’ continued ability to stage brazen attacks despite heightened security measures and an overall decline in violence nationwide.

It came a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that violence was likely to increase ahead of a June 30 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from urban areas as well as the national elections that are set for the end of January.

Ziyad al-Ani, deputy secretary-general of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said al-Obeidi was on good terms with Iraq’s fractured parties.

“All his stances were humanitarian and nationalistic ones. I do not think that anybody would like to see him dead except the terrorist and sectarian groups who target nationalists and activists,” he said.

Al-Obeidi’s party is the Congress of the People of Iraq, one of three parties making up the Iraqi Accordance Front, which has 44 seats in Iraq’s 275-member parliament. The other two parties in the bloc are the Iraqi Islamic Party and the National Dialogue Council.

The portly lawmaker was chosen to lead the bloc in May after his predecessor Ayad al-Samarraie became parliamentary speaker, ending a monthslong impasse over the Sunni leadership of the legislative body.

Iraqi television stations showed footage of him visiting detainees in their orange jumpsuits along with the reports of his death.

Shatha al-Abousi, a fellow Sunni lawmaker and member of the parliamentary human rights committee, said al-Obeidi was 47 years old, had two wives and eight children.

He also was a university professor with a doctorate in Islamic studies and often gave mosque sermons on Friday, the traditional Islamic day of prayer.

“He was calling for national reconciliation. He was trying to unify all Iraqis,” she said. “Through his Friday sermons, he was calling for peace and unity. He also disclosed the crimes and torture taking place in Iraqi prisons.”

The mainly Sunni neighborhood was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad before local tribal leaders joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq two years ago, helping to lead to the overall decline in violence.

The persistent violence has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security as U.S. forces start to withdraw.

A U.S. commander in the northern city of Mosul announced that Iraqi police have arrested two of their own, in connection with the Feb. 24 ambush on an American platoon at a police station that left one U.S. soldier dead.

The two suspects — believed to be an Iraqi police officer and a sergeant — opened fire on a U.S. patrol visiting one of the main Iraqi police training sites. An American soldier and an interpreter were killed and five others were wounded in the attack.

The two men were arrested during a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid early Monday, and are in the custody of Iraqi police, according to Army Col. Gary Volesky, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq’s Ninevah province.

In other violence Friday, a bomb planted on a bicycle exploded in eastern Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine others, Iraqi police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

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