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CNN.com May 19, 2005

Gunmen in Iraq kill top Shiite cleric's aide

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- An aide to Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric was shot to death Thursday in Baghdad, police said, the second of his aides killed this week.

The attack is part of an upsurge in violence since the largely Shiite transitional government came to power. Many of the targets have been Shiites and Kurds. Authorities believe the insurgents are mainly Sunni Arabs.

The aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose name is Sayid Mohammed al-Allaf, was shot to death in Sadr City, a largely Shiite neighborhood of northeast Baghdad, Iraqi police said.

The other al-Sistani aide shot this week was Sheikh Qasin al-Ghiri. He and his nephew were killed in a drive-by shooting early Sunday in eastern Baghdad, where there is a large Shiite presence.

Al-Allaf's assassination follows Wednesday's call by the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party to close Sunni mosques from Saturday dawn prayers until Tuesday dawn prayers to protest the treatment of Sunnis.

According to the GlobalSecurity.org Web site, the association was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his largely Sunni government. It is the highest Sunni authority in Iraq.

The association's statement says the Shiite-dominated transitional government disregards the Sunni community's rights, and has violated "mosques, (the) holy Quran and private homes; in addition to the arrest, torture and assassination of scholars and thousands of youth and worshippers without proper trial, along with a deliberate marring of the reputation of Sunnis through official and non-official media."

The statement demands the end of government practices, threatening a "stricter" response if it does not.

Sunnis represent a small portion of the 275-member transitional National Assembly.

An official from Iraq's Oil Ministry, Ali Maneed, was also gunned down Thursday in a separate incident in Baghdad, police said.

On Monday, Iraq Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi ordered the Iraqi army to stop raids on mosques and churches.

"We have ordered a ministerial order to all units," said al-Dulaimi, who expressed concern about harming civilians.

Insurgents have used mosques, Muslim houses of worship, to stage attacks and to hide guns and explosives.

U.S. soldiers have said they have fired at mosques only when they've been fired upon from them.

On Wednesday, the head of a Sunni group made fiery accusations against Shiites, directing his ire at a group that once was a militia for a powerful Shiite organization.

Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, criticized the Badr Organization, once known as the Badr Brigade, the group that was formerly the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose party has members in the government.

Last week, the Interior Ministry announced that the Badr Organization helped authorities arrest a handful of people in connection with a Baghdad attack.

Sunnis are concerned that the Shiite government is allowing groups like the Badr Organization to behave like militias. Al-Dhari makes a reference to the arrests in a statement, referring to four Palestinians who were seized.

"We knew the sides that stand behind the assassinations of imams, sheikhs, and prayers. They are the same sides that cordoned off the camp of our Palestinian brothers in al-Baladiat area to take them out of the country. They are the Badr militant group," al-Dhari said.

"All the world should know that we are heading toward a catastrophe, only God knows when it ends. This is our warning."

Gunmen killed the Oil Ministry employee, Dr. Ali Hameed, about 8 a.m. (midnight EDT), police said.

In Baquba on Thursday, two Iraqi police officers were killed and two other people were wounded when a roadside bomb detonated near a police convoy in front of the Diyala University Medicine School, police said.

Terror tape justifies civilian killings

A chilling, rambling audio file thought to be the voice of the most-wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says religious doctrine justifies the killing of innocent Muslims by insurgents.

The message was posted on several Islamist Web sites Wednesday, the same day a senior U.S. military official said the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq ordered the recent wave of car bombings.

CNN has been unable to confirm that that it is al-Zarqawi speaking. The tape introduces the speaker as al-Zarqawi, but the speaker does not identify himself.

The voice says in Arabic: "The shedding of Muslim blood ... is allowed in order to avoid the greater evil of disrupting jihad."

The voice says the protection of religion "is more important than protecting lives, honor or wealth."

"God knows that we were careful not to kill Muslims, and we have called off many operations in the past to avoid losses ... but we cannot kill infidels without killing some Muslims. It is unavoidable," he adds.

In Washington, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn't seem to doubt the voice was that of al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head.

"Talk about a guy who has no moral foundation. It's an absolute outrage," Myers said.

Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Army's Central Command, added, "It's the same old thing. He says that it's OK to kill Muslims, and that it's an Islamic duty. And it's incorrect. That's not true."

Abizaid also could not confirm reports about a meeting between al-Zarqawi and his lieutenants in Syria last month, where plans were allegedly laid for the recent spate of Iraqi violence.

More than 400 Iraqis have been killed during the three weeks since the formation of Iraq's new transitional government, and insurgents, who once favored roadside bombs, are using more car-borne devices.

In May there have been 21 car bombings, mostly suicide attacks, in Baghdad and nearby. By contrast last year in the same area, fewer than half the attacks were car bombings.

Other developments

  • U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick arrived in Baghdad Thursday for meetings with top Iraqi officials, U.S. officials said. His first meeting was with Hachem al-Hassani, speaker of the Iraq's transitional National Assembly. Zoellick was scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, U.S. embassy officials said, as well as other U.S. and Iraqi officials.

  • A delegation headed by Iraq's transitional prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, will travel this weekend to Turkey to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a news release from Turkey's Foreign Ministry. It will be al-Jaafari's first official trip outside Iraq since becoming prime minister three weeks ago.

    CNN's Enes Dulami and Kevin Flower contributed to this report


Copyright 2005, CNN. All rights reserved. Associated Press contributed to this report.