At Least 64 Dead as Rebels Strike in 3 Iraqi Cities
By JOHN F. BURNS
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 19 - Only days into Iraq's six-week election campaign, car bombers struck crowds in Najaf and Karbala on Sunday, killing at least 61 people and wounding about 120 in those two holy Shiite cities. In the heart of Baghdad, about 30 insurgents hurling grenades and firing machine guns pulled three election officials from their car in the midst of morning traffic and killed them with shots to the head.
Taken together, the attacks represented the second-worst daily civilian death toll from insurgent mayhem in Iraq since the American military occupation transferred formal sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government nearly six months ago.
The worst attack was on July 28, when as many as 70 people were killed by a suicide bomber near a police recruiting center in the city of Baquba, north of Baghdad.
The attacks raised the specter of exactly the kind of violence that American and Iraqi officials have been hoping to minimize ahead of assembly elections on Jan. 30 that are a watershed in the American-inspired blueprint for democracy in Iraq.
Iraqi politicians arguing for a delay in the elections to allow for renewed mediation efforts with Sunni insurgents have repeatedly warned of the risks of a wave of sectarian killings, as well as attacks on election officials and candidates.
In Najaf and Karbala, Shiite clerics and government officials attributed the bombings to Sunni extremists seeking to ignite sectarian strife with the country's Shiite majority. The bombings took place within two hours of each other in crowded areas in the center of the cities near the Shiite sect's holiest shrines.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi Election Commission, supervising the campaign, described the victims of the ambush on Baghdad's notoriously lawless Haifa Street as martyrs and appealed urgently to all Iraqis to "support the lives of our officials."
The bombings in Najaf and Karbala seemed calculated to cause maximum loss of life and a wave of anger among Shiites, who constitute about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
In Karbala, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle amid minibuses at the entrance to the city's bus terminal. In Najaf, a car bomb exploded in a central square crowded with people watching a tribal leader's funeral procession, among them the provincial governor and the city's police chief, both of whom escaped unhurt.
Accounts filed by an Iraqi employee of The New York Times and Western news agencies told of residents pulling bodies from the rubble of shops around Maidan Square in the heart of Najaf's Old City, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
An Associated Press report quoted Yousef Munim, an official at the city's Al Hakim Hospital, as saying that the hospital's preliminary account showed 47 people killed and 69 wounded. The blast occurred a few hundred yards from the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most sacred in Shiite Islam, which was the center of an American-led offensive in August that cleared the city of rebels loyal to the rebel Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, but at a heavy cost in civilian lives and damage to buildings near the shrine.
In Karbala, about 50 miles north of Najaf, the bombing took place within a short walk of the Imam Hussein Shrine, another sacred site, outside of which another bomb exploded last Wednesday that killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others, including a close aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric.
Ali al-Ardawi, an assistant to the director of Al Hussein Hospital, said 14 people were killed and 52 wounded.
Shiite religious and political leaders said it was clear that Sunni insurgents were responsible. "They are trying to ignite a sectarian civil war and prevent elections from going ahead on time," said Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum, a moderate cleric who has worked with American officials to smooth the way for the elections. He added: "They have failed before, and they will fail again. The Shiites are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to more violence. We are determined on elections, as Ayatollah Sistani has made clear."
A similar message came from a leader in the powerful alliance of Shiite religious parties that entered the campaign under the patronage of Ayatollah Sistani, who has unrivaled influence among religious Shiites. Haidar al-Ubadi, a senior official in the Dawa party, one of the alliance's most important constituents, said Najaf and Karbala were singled out because of their symbolism, and because elections had been expected to run smoothly there after several months of relative quiet.
Mr. Ubadi blamed Sunni insurgents of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, who have been identified by American military intelligence as a core insurgency group. The Wahhabis' main stronghold, American officials believe, runs from the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad up the Euphrates River into Anbar Province, where Wahhabi groups linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who is America's most-wanted man in Iraq, maintained their headquarters until recently in Falluja. From this area, it is barely an hour's drive to Karbala, and not much farther to Najaf.
"The Wahhabis are being fed intelligence from the Baathists to carry out this slaughter," Mr. Ubadi said, referring to Iraq's governing party under Saddam Hussein. "We will hand them victory if we respond in kind."
Elsewhere on Sunday, masked insurgents issued a videotape showing what they said were 10 abducted Iraqis who had been working for an American company, the Sandi Group, and said they would kill them unless the company withdrew from Iraq. The company, one of dozens of American, European and Middle Eastern enterprises engaged in efforts to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, said it employed more than 7,000 people in Iraq.
Mr. Hussein, or at least lawyers who say they spoke for him, seemed to be trying to influence the elections from his detention cell. The lawyers, hired by Mr. Hussein's family to defend him before the Iraqi tribunal set up to try top leaders of the ousted government, told a news conference in Jordan that an Iraqi lawyer on the defense team who met with Mr. Hussein last week quoted him as urging Iraqis to be "wary" of the elections.
The leader of the legal team, Ziad Khassawneh, said the Iraqi lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, traveled to Jordan after the meeting with Mr. Hussein on Thursday, then returned to Baghdad after reporting on Mr. Hussein's remarks, according to an Agence France-Presse report. Mr. Khassawneh said Mr. Hussein had offered "recommendations" to Iraqis through Mr. Dulaimi.
Asked by Mr. Hussein to be briefed on developments in the country, Mr. Dulaimi told him there were to be elections, according to the account from Mr. Khassawneh. "At that point, the president said to Dulaimi that the Iraqi people should 'be wary of this issue,' " Mr. Khassawneh said.
Mr. Hussein was also reported to have cited a verse from the Koran, "Hold onto God's law and don't scatter," that Mr. Dulaimi had reported to be a call for unity, Mr. Khassawneh said, and the former Iraqi leader was said to have sent a message to religious leaders saying that they "must bear the historical responsibility for what is happening in Iraq."
It was impossible to confirm Mr. Hussein's reported remarks, but they appeared almost coded, perhaps to meet constraints imposed on lawyers meeting top Iraqi detainees. An Iraqi official familiar with the tribunal's work said lawyers were not allowed to discuss events in Iraq since the men were captured and subjected to a news blackout, without newspapers, radio and television.
The attack on the election officials in Baghdad had implications that, in some ways, were almost as threatening as the bombings. The insurgents gave notice of their plan to disrupt the campaign by attacking two voter registration offices in northern Iraq last week, but the ambush on Sunday was much bolder. The attackers struck less than a mile from the Green Zone compound in central Baghdad that is the nerve center for the Americans here, and for the interim Iraqi government. They also showed, again, that Haifa Street, one of the city's main boulevards, is practically enemy-held territory.
The Iraqi election officials singled out in the ambush, assigned to a local voter registration office in Baghdad, appeared to have been selected for assassination, and the attackers appeared confident that they could carry it out with impunity. Accounts by witnesses reported by The Associated Press said that after dragging the victims from the vehicle and shooting them, the insurgents set fire to their vehicle, then wandered along the street brandishing their weapons. The police said later that one attacker had been killed.
The election commission, with a staff of about 900 officials and about 6,000 part-time workers, has been racing to complete voter lists based on a Hussein-era register of families eligible for rationed foods and medicines. The lists have yielded a potential electorate of nearly 14 million people, but registration offices are bracing for a tide of people seeking to correct entries that Iraqi officials have said contain inaccuracies. Uncorrected, the officials say, the mistakes could lead to the disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, further threatening the credibility of the elections.
The apparent inability of the American-led military force in Iraq to accelerate the training of sufficient numbers of Iraqis to be responsible for security has become a major issue as the election draws near.
On Sunday, Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered pointed criticism of the American-trained security forces, saying they were not capable of bringing stability to the country. It was the first time Mr. Warner, just back from a trip to Iraq, had spoken publicly about shortcomings in the Bush administration's plan to bring security to Iraq.
"We put our whole case, resting our case, on the ability to bring in the Iraqi people and train them in police, national guard, army duties and security forces," Mr. Warner said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." "In my judgment it is falling behind in its capability and commitment to pick up the job and carry it forward."
Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Najaf and Karbala contributed reporting for this article.