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Attack on Iraqi Brigade Shatters Fallouja Calm; Major Pipelines Hit

June 10, 2004|Ashraf Khalil and Edmund Sanders | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — A mortar attack Wednesday shattered several weeks of relative calm in Fallouja, wounding 12 members of a special Iraqi brigade created last month to end the bloody standoff between U.S. forces and insurgents in the restive city.

Saboteurs also struck a pair of major pipelines in northern Iraq, delivering another setback to Iraq's efforts to get oil production up and running.

The violence underscored security concerns as the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority prepares to return sovereignty to Iraqis in three weeks.

In Fallouja, attackers firing mortars and small arms struck a brigade led by former Iraqi army officers that had been brought in specifically to appease the local population. It was the first attack against the unit, which comprises many of the same residents who battled U.S. troops this spring.

The pipeline attacks took place a day after the coalition formally transferred control of Iraq's Oil Ministry and petroleum assets to the new interim government.

Iraq's new leaders faced challenges on the political front as well.

A political rift between ethnic factions in the interim government deepened Wednesday as a key Kurdish official threatened to boycott his Cabinet post until his duties were more fully defined.

The attack in Fallouja represents the first major test of the new brigade, which took control after U.S. Marines moved out of the city last month. Creation of the unit, led by former Gen. Mohammed Latif, allowed residents to police their city, theoretically without the perceived taint of collaboration with the Americans that marks forces such as the Iraqi police and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Although the area around Fallouja has seen intermittent attacks against U.S. forces and police stations in the last month, the Fallouja brigade had remained largely unscathed. Now at issue is how the unit will respond to an attack possibly carried out by fellow residents, and whether U.S. Marines will be redeployed on the outskirts of the city.

On Wednesday, the Marines sealed off the eastern and southern entrances to the city with barbed wire and concrete barriers. U.S. tanks reportedly ventured past their checkpoint on the western edge of the city, then pulled back.

A Marine spokesman denied that U.S. forces were preparing to enter the city. "We are not conducting any offensive operations in Fallouja," Maj. T.V. Johnson told Agence France-Presse news service.

In northern Iraq, insurgent attacks crippled two pipelines -- one linking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk with Turkey, the other joining the country's largest fuel refinery in Baiji, 125 miles north of Baghdad, to a local power station. The Baiji blast caused the closure of the 400-megawatt station, knocking out power to part of the surrounding area.

Oil Ministry spokesman Diaa Bakka declined to comment on whether the attacks might have been timed to follow Tuesday's announcement by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi that his government had assumed control of the oil industry.

At a Cabinet meeting Wednesday in Baghdad, Allawi praised the passage the day before of a United Nations resolution endorsing the June 30 hand-over of power to the interim government.

"It's a great day that future generations will remember as the day when Iraq has transferred from the era of occupation to a new era and got back its complete sovereignty," he said. "It's now the time to start serious work on an inclusive national assembly that should represent all Iraqis without any discrimination based on religion or political dogma, to prepare for the elections that will be held in January 2005."

Kurdish leaders expressed disappointment that the resolution did not endorse Iraq's interim constitution, which they say guarantees them special rights of self-rule. They have threatened to withdraw from the government if the constitution is repealed or altered.

Leaders of the two leading Kurdish parties met late Wednesday to discuss a joint response to the U.N. resolution. After the meeting, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said that the party's leaders had decided to accept the resolution.

Mention of the interim constitution in the U.N. resolution was opposed by Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who said it would give Kurds the power to veto the permanent constitution when it is drafted next year.

Adding to the political standoff, Barham Salih, a top-ranking Kurdish official who last week was named Iraq's deputy prime minister, told Allawi that he would not accept his new post unless he received more clearly defined responsibilities, according to a senior official with the Kurdish regional government in Sulaymaniya who did not want to be identified.

As deputy prime minister, Salih is to focus on improving Iraq's security. But he complained that the post appeared to be simply "window dressing," the Kurdish official said.

Iraqi leaders were working to resolve the issue and remained optimistic that a compromise would be found. At the Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Allawi assured Kurds that there would be no changes to the interim constitution during the transition period.

"It's serious, but I hope they will not withdraw," said Hamid Bayati, deputy foreign minister and top official with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party. "There must be a very serious consultation now with the Kurds."


Special correspondent Azad Seddiq in Sulaymaniya contributed to this report.

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