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Assassinations Surge in Iraq

Sectarian hatred, revenge and anti-occupation sentiments are forces behind a recent wave of killings that signals a new kind of lawlessness.

November 02, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The streets were almost deserted in the gray light before sunrise as the blind sheik, guided by a young boy, walked slowly home from his small mosque after leading the morning prayer on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.

At the corner, the sheik, Ahmed Khudayer, was hit by a volley of bullets and fell to the ground, slain along with his brother Waleed and the boy, Tayseer.

Khudayer was Sunni. The neighborhood is largely Shiite, the majority Muslim sect in Iraq whose members were viciously oppressed under Saddam Hussein. And Khudayer's family believes he was targeted because of his faith.

Although terrorist bombings have dominated the headlines, a spiraling number of assassinations across this troubled country is exposing other violent currents at work. These riptides of vigilante justice, sectarian violence and resistance to the U.S.-led occupation are pulling apart Iraq's neighborhoods -- and signaling a new kind of lawlessness.

"During the former regime, the government ruled with an iron fist, but now since Saddam Hussein is gone, there is a security vacuum," said Tahani Kadhim, 35, the sheik's widow, wearing a black mourning dress. "People such as the ones who killed my husband are encouraged by this -- they want to create strife among groups, to trigger a civil war."

The recent assassinations in Iraq are hardly the first since the end of major combat was declared in May, but the rapid proliferation of the phenomenon is startling.

In just the last three weeks, one of Baghdad's three deputy mayors was killed; the police chief of the southern city of Amara was cut down by an assassin's bullets; a pioneering Iraqi journalist in the northern city of Mosul was shot in the back and killed; at least two Sunni clerics were assassinated; there was an attempt on the life of a moderate Shiite cleric; and at least six former high-ranking officials of the Mukhabarat, Hussein's intelligence agency, were gunned down.

A close look suggests that no one group is responsible for the killings of recent weeks. The lack of any single culprit indicates that assassination may have become a terrorizing tool used by all sides.

For instance, remnants of Hussein's regime appear to be carrying out selected hits -- whether on police chiefs or members of the new U.S.-backed government -- as a way to discourage Iraqis from helping to form a new order here.

And opponents of the old regime who lost family members to its brutality fear that many of those responsible will never be brought to justice, so they are taking revenge into their own hands.

The attacks on Sunni religious leaders appear to be sectarian, instigated by the majority Shiites. At the grass-roots level, the two Muslim branches have gotten along, so some Iraqis conjecture that outside groups seeking to sow suspicion and unrest are behind the killings. As for the attacks on Shiite clerics, local police believe they are the result of rivalries among moderate and more radical Shiite factions.

Assassinations are difficult to preempt, especially when used as a tactic by many groups at once, said Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who recently spent several months in Baghdad advising the Interior Ministry. The key is intelligence, he said. But overall, he said, the phenomenon is hardly surprising in a postwar environment.

"For the most part, this is no different from the postwar situation we saw in Bosnia and Kosovo," Kerik said, noting that retribution killings were a factor in both places in the Balkans. He said some police were being executed because, unbeknownst to the Americans, they were members of the former regime who had "wormed their way back into positions of power" and their communities angrily dealt with them.

However, Kerik said he was hard put to account for the killing of clerics. The solution is more Iraqi police, more Iraqi military, more Iraqi forces, he said.

On Saturday, the chief administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, vowed to speed up the training of Iraqi forces in a bid to combat the attacks on civilians. By next September, he said, more than 200,000 Iraqis will be serving as police officers, soldiers and border guards, if Congress completes the appropriation of $20 billion in additional funds.

For the victims of these killings and their families, it is already too late.

In at least three cases, the victims knew before they died that their days were numbered. With the exception of the Mukhabarat members, many of whom suspect that they are targets but receive no formal warnings, the victims knew they were at risk and decided to continue the work they believed in.

On Tuesday, journalist Ahmed Shawkat, an Iraqi Kurd, went to the roof at his newspaper offices in Mosul to use his satellite telephone. A few minutes later, his son Sindbad and his daughter Roaa, both of whom worked with him at the paper, heard two shots.

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