- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

BAGHDAD | The government Saturday blamed al Qaeda in Iraq for the killing of a prominent Sunni lawmaker as leaders across the sectarian divide rallied together, deploring the killing and pledging to prevent a new wave of religious violence that once pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

Harith al-Obeidi, leader of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, and his bodyguard were fatally shot Friday as they left a Baghdad mosque after prayers. The gunman died when he triggered a grenade as he was chased by police and mosque guards.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said evidence so far pointed to al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni terror network that frequently targets fellow Sunnis who speak out in favor of national reconciliation.

Mr. al-Obeidi was also an outspoken champion of the rights of detainees, most of whom are Sunnis but also include Shi’ite militants.

The day before his death, Mr. al-Obeidi called on parliament to summon officials from the interior and defense ministries to respond to the allegations of widespread beatings and torture in Iraqi jails.

That raised suspicion that his slaying may have been linked to his campaign on behalf of detainees. Some politicians suggested Saddam Hussein loyalists may have been involved in a bid to undermine the government.

Whoever was responsible, the slaying of a figure who had been prominent in Sunni political circles for years raised the specter of renewed tit-for-tat sectarian killings in a culture steeped in a tradition of vendetta killings.

Fears of sectarian warfare have increased with a series of bombings this year against Shi’ite civilians. A car bomb Wednesday killed about 30 people in a small Shi’ite town near Nasiriyah that had largely been spared any violence.

Mindful of the dangers, the Iraqi parliament convened a special session Saturday to honor Mr. al-Obeidi with a nationally televised funeral service at Baghdad’s Convention Center in the guarded Green Zone.

Speaker after speaker - Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds - took the podium to express their outrage over the killing, praise Mr. al-Obeidi for efforts on behalf of reconciliation and pledge to prevent a new sectarian war.

Following the services, an Iraqi military honor guard carried the caskets of Mr. al-Obeidi and his bodyguard to the main Sunni cemetery near the Abu Hanifa mosque in northern Baghdad.

Mr. al-Obeidi assumed leadership of the Iraqi Accordance Front - which holds 44 seats in the 275-member parliament - in May after his predecessor, Ayad al-Samarraie, became the parliamentary speaker.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb the day before in Baghdad.

The U.S. Embassy said two more American contractors have been released from Iraqi custody, but two others remain in detention. The Americans were released on bond late Friday, a day after a third contractor was freed, embassy spokesman James Fennell said. The five were detained by the Iraqis on June 3 in connection with an investigation into the stabbing death of another U.S. contractor, James Kitterman of Houston.


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