Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
Iraqi security forces carry the coffin of the chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, Izzadine Saleem, at a funeral service inside the Green Zone in Baghdad on Tuesday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 5/18/2004 8:35:24 AM ET 2004-05-18T12:35:24

The U.S. governor of Iraq said Tuesday that the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis must go ahead as scheduled despite the killing of the head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. In a southern city, nine militiamen loyal to a rebel cleric died in fighting with American forces.

At a memorial service for Izzadine Saleem, who was killed by a suicide bomber Monday at a checkpoint near coalition headquarters, Paul Bremer said “terrorists are trying to stop Iraq’s march to sovereignty and peace.”

“They will not succeed. We must continue the political process leading to an interim government next month and to elections next year,” Bremer said, whose American-run coalition is struggling to contain an insurgency in Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, as well as an uprising in the Shiite heartland to the south.

Early Tuesday, U.S. troops killed nine fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Karbala, said Mutaz al-Hasani, a witness who saw their bodies. Ten Iraqi fighters were also injured in the clashes, which lasted more than an hour on streets near the city’s Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines.

Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
Administrator Paul Bremer delivers a speech in front of a portrait of the slain chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, Izzadine Saleem during a funeral service Tuesday.
U.S. troops and militiamen fought in the Mukhaber district of another holy city, Najaf. Explosions and heavy firing were heard overnight.

Two mortar shells fell Tuesday near a compound formerly used by the Iraqi security service in the Baghdad neighborhood of Baladiyat but there was no word on casualties.

Al-Sadr’s militia, al-Mahdi Army, launched an uprising against the coalition in early April. Al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the occupation who is based in Najaf, is wanted on charges of killing a rival moderate cleric last year.

Sarin nerve agent found in bomb
On Monday, the U.S. military said that U.S. soldiers found a roadside bomb containing sarin nerve agent in Baghdad. The device, which partially detonated, was apparently a leftover from Saddam’s arsenals. It was unclear whether more such weapons were in the hands of insurgents.

Soldiers who removed the bomb experienced symptoms consistent with low-level nerve agent exposure, U.S. officials said. No one was wounded in the partial blast Saturday, and the dispersal of sarin from the bomb was very limited, the military said.

In Mosul, gunmen opened fire Tuesday on two civilian cars believed to be carrying foreigners, killing two and wounding another, witnesses said. The attack occurred in the center of the northern city.

Insurgents have targeted civilian foreigners involved in reconstruction in Iraq. In Mosul in March, assailants killed four American missionaries who were working on a water project.

At Saleem’s memorial, his family and members the Governing Council gathered inside the so-called Green Zone, which houses the coalition headquarters. Iraqi security forces in desert camouflage carried Saleem’s coffin, which was draped with the Iraqi flag, from the hall after the service.

Bremer and other dignitaries, including new Governing Council chief Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, kissed and shook hands with Saleem’s grieving relatives.

“The enemies of freedom have taken him from his countrymen, from his family and from his friends, and although his loss is greatest for his family and for his country, those of us in the coalition shall miss him as well,” Bremer said.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is consulting council members and other Iraqis about the makeup of the interim government that will take office after the power handover on June 30, was also at the ceremony.

“We’re all working together in order to rebuild Iraq, which he sacrificed his life for,” Brahimi said. “We express our cordial sorrow to his relatives and to the Iraqi people.”

Major setback ahead of handover
The killing was a major setback to American efforts to stabilize Iraq just six weeks before the handover of sovereignty.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Tuesday that the situation in Iraq is tougher than Britain anticipated last year.

“It’s palpable that the difficulties which we have faced have been more extensive than it was reasonable to assume nine months ago,” Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

He said many of the security problems in Iraq had arisen following the attacks on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. The first on Aug. 19 killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Saleem, also known as Abdel-Zahraa Othman, was waiting in a Governing Council convoy at a U.S. checkpoint along a tree-lined street preparing to enter the Green Zone when the bomb was detonated. It apparently had been rigged with artillery shells and hidden inside a red Volkswagen.

Iraqi officials said nine people, including the bomber, were killed and 14 Iraqis and an Egyptian were wounded in Monday’s attack. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt put the death toll at seven. Two U.S. soldiers were slightly wounded.

Saleem, a Shiite Muslim in his 60s, held the rotating presidency of the 25-member Governing Council for May. He was the second council member slain since their appointment last July; Aquila al-Hashimi was mortally wounded by gunmen in September.

Insurgents also have targeted police and army recruitment centers and other Iraqis perceived as owing their positions to the Americans.

The U.S. military said the car bombing was a suicide attack and Kimmitt said it had the “classic hallmarks” of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant with links to al-Qaida.

However, a previously unknown group, the Arab Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility, saying in a Web site posting that two of its fighters carried out the attack on “the traitor and mercenary” Saleem.

Kimmitt said he did not know if the Arab Resistance Movement was “a cover for the Zarqawi network or if it’s an actual organization.”

Al-Zarqawi is believed responsible for many of the vehicle bombs in Iraq in recent months and for the beheading last week of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg.

The Governing Council selected al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim civil engineer from Mosul, to succeed Saleem. Al-Yawer will lead the council until the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to the new interim Iraqi government.

NBC’s Ned Colt in Baghdad and Scott Foster in Washington, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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