Two Sunni leaders who had taken public stances against al-Qaida in Iraq were attacked in separate incidents Saturday, in a sign the terror network may ramp up retaliation against local chiefs who oppose it.
Meanwhile, a powerful roadside bomb killed the governor and police chief of a southern province that has been torn by fierce fighting between Shiite factions. The country’s prime minister urged residents to show restraint and not launch reprisals.
The flurry of attacks hinted at the complex challenges facing Iraq, from both Shiite militias and Sunni extremists.
The United States has pointed to an anti-al-Qaida alliance of local Sunni leaders as a hopeful sign of turnaround, but the attacks showed the high risks local leaders face by joining it.
In one, militants bombed the northern Baghdad home of a moderate and highly regarded Sunni cleric, Sheik Wathiq al-Obeidi, who had recently spoken against al-Qaida. He was seriously wounded and three relatives were killed.
A Sunni insurgent umbrella group had threatened al-Obeidi on Tuesday, calling him a traitor and accusing him of working with the U.S.-backed alliance of Sunni tribal leaders, who are fighting al-Qaida in western Iraq.
Followers denied that the cleric was linked to the alliance in Anbar province. But he had issued his own call against al-Qaida last week during a funeral prayer for two nephews believed killed by extremists.
“We have to fight foreign fighters in our city,” witnesses quoted him as saying. “We have to fight those linked to al-Qaida.”
In the second attack, a local tribal leader in Albu Khalifa, a village west of Baghdad, was gunned down by militants who broke into his home late Saturday, police said.
Sheik Fawaq Sadda’ al-Khalifawi, a local clan chief, had recently joined the anti-al-Qaida alliance in Anbar, said a police officer in the town of Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. The police officer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of more reprisals.
‘A desire in Iran for much more dialogue’
The attacks came as Iraq’s politics have remain stalled between the Shiite-led government and Sunnis suspicious that the government favors Shiite militias backed by Iran.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, returning from a trip to Iran, said Iran seeks more talks with the United States on stabilizing Iraq.
“I found a desire in Iran for much more dialogue with the Americans on fighting terrorism,” the prime minister said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Al-Maliki reached out to other neighbors, too, saying his country seeks to repair relations with Syria, Kuwait and Iran that were “broken by the previous regime.” But al-Maliki did not mention Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led country furious with what it sees as the Shiite bias of al-Maliki’s government.
Governor, police chief killed
In the south, the bomb that killed the governor and police chief struck in Diwaniyah province 80 miles south of Baghdad, as the two traveled home from another funeral.
The governor, Khalil Jalil Hamza, and the police chief, Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan, were killed along with their driver and a bodyguard. Hassan had been on the job only one week, officials said.
Diwaniyah has been the site of heavy clashes between U.S.-Iraqi security forces and Shiite militia fighters. The area also has seen a rise in internal rivalries between militia forces.
Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew after the deaths, and al-Maliki ordered an investigation and urged citizens to show restraint.
The governor was a member of the influential Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a group led by Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists dominate the police and have engaged in fierce fighting with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army for control of the oil-rich south.
In all, at least 33 people were killed or found dead nationwide, including a police officer and a woman who were struck by separate roadside bombs in northern Iraq.
Separately, the U.S. military on Saturday reported the death of a soldier in Tikrit in a non-combat incident.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in Iraq to meet with officials reforming the country’s legal system, but the embattled Gonzales—under fire at home from Democrats—had no public meetings.