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Member of Iraqi Council Attacked

Aqila Hashimi is wounded when gunmen ambush her car. Some of her colleagues on the governing panel had complained of dangers.

September 21, 2003|David Holley and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — A member of Iraq's Governing Council was seriously wounded Saturday when at least five men with automatic rifles ambushed her car, in the first assassination attempt on an Iraqi serving in the U.S.-backed interim government.

The brazen morning assault on Aqila Hashimi, one of three women on the 25-person council, dealt a fresh blow to U.S. efforts to build a new political order here and came after some members complained that they were in danger of assassination from elements labeling Iraqis who work with the Americans as collaborators.

The ambush, which seriously wounded Hashimi's driver and injured her brother Zaid, who was acting as her bodyguard, also raised anew questions about the extent of U.S. control five months after its forces occupied Iraq.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack on the veteran diplomatic worker, a Shiite who was the only Iraqi Governing Council member to have served in ousted President Saddam Hussein's administration.

But suspicion immediately fell on die-hard remnants of the regime and on religious militants and foreign fighters who violently reject the U.S. occupation of Iraq and target both foreign forces and Iraqis they call traitors.

Five to seven attackers waiting in a pickup truck opened fire on Hashimi's two-car convoy a few hundred yards from her western Baghdad home as she was leaving for her office, witnesses said.

She had been scheduled to depart later in the day for the United States, as part of Iraq's delegation to this week's session of the U.N. General Assembly.

The U.S.-led occupation authority acknowledged more than a month ago that council members faced "great personal risk." Ahmad Chalabi, who holds the council's rotating presidency, issued a statement Saturday noting that Hashimi "was threatened repeatedly" but chose to continue as a Governing Council member.

"The members of the Governing Council and ministers will not be intimidated by the terrorists," Chalabi said. "They will continue to do their patriotic duty to move Iraq toward freedom, democracy and sovereignty."

Attacks by insurgents have taken a mounting toll on U.S. forces here. In addition, a series of four large bombings in August killed more than 100 people, including the country's main Shiite political leader, the Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, and the chief U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Hashimi had eschewed a heavy contingent of bodyguards from outside her family, relatives said.

"God will protect me," one of her brothers, Aqil, quoted her as having told him the night before the attack.

Speaking Saturday evening after returning from her bedside, Aqil said his sister was pulling through courageously from at least two bullet wounds to the abdomen and another in the leg.

"She is talking," he said. "She is breathing normally."

The first thing she asked about after she regained consciousness was the condition of her driver, identified only as Sufa, and her brothers Zaid and Taib, who had been with her, he said.

A tall, white-haired man who looked drawn and weary from the day's experience, Aqil Hashimi recounted his Friday night conversation with his sister.

"I told her, 'Your bodyguards aren't so good, and there are very few of them,' " he said. "She was saying, 'God will protect me.' "

Hashimi was saved when her driver managed to swerve past the first car in her entourage and the attackers, getting away at high speed and ultimately plowing the white Land Cruiser into a home. The attackers started to pursue her but turned away in the face of gunfire from Zaid Hashimi and from security guards at an adjacent school who came to the rescue, witnesses said.

Hashimi was rushed to an Iraqi hospital where officials said she underwent surgery. She was transferred in a convoy of U.S. armored vehicles and military ambulances to the U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital, near a former presidential palace.

Several staff members at Baghdad's Al Yarmouk Hospital said Hashimi was conscious and speaking when she arrived, but bleeding heavily. "She has at least one bullet in her abdomen and some other injuries," Dr. Ali Abdul Muhsin said. "Several organs were injured -- her intestines, her liver."

Aqil said she was scheduled to undergo a second operation early today, and he said doctors seemed optimistic about her prognosis. The second surgery would explore the area around her pancreas to assess damage and possibly to remove a bullet or fragments still lodged there, he said. In addition to wounds to her abdomen, she had a bullet wound to the leg, he said.

The driver suffered bullet wounds to his back, said neighbors who helped the victims after the attack, and Zaid was also reported injured, although the extent of his wounds was not clear.

"This senseless attack is not just against the person of Aqila Hashimi," said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. "It is an attack against the people of Iraq and against the common goals we share for the establishment of a fully democratic government."

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