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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Slayings Point Up Weak Spot in Iraq's Interim Government

Security remains in flux despite assassinations on consecutive days. More attacks were feared after a return of sovereignty.

June 13, 2004|Ashraf Khalil | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — When Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi first met with his fledgling Cabinet this month, one of the top items on the agenda was how to keep all the members alive.

The urgent need for such discussions in Iraq was highlighted today when gunmen killed the cultural affairs officer for the Education Ministry, the second attack on an Iraqi official in as many days. Kamal Jarah was shot outside his Baghdad home as he was leaving for work about 7:30 a.m. He died at Yarmouk Hospital.

On Saturday, a deputy foreign minister, Bassam Salih Kubba, was assassinated as he left his Baghdad home for work.

The shootings underscored the threat to interim government officials, who are viewed as prime targets by insurgents bent on destabilizing the nation. The killing "bears all the hallmarks of leftover supporters of Saddam Hussein's evil regime," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

But as the June 30 deadline for the scheduled return of sovereignty from the U.S.-led occupation approaches, personal security arrangements of top government ministers are in flux.

For now, each of the 32 ministers is largely responsible for his or her own security, with many preferring to use a tight circle of associates and relatives for personal security details.

But a proposal is being considered -- and was discussed at length during that first Cabinet meeting -- to create a centralized government office that, like the U.S. Secret Service, would offer protection for all ministers and top government officials.

Most predict that the threat will persist and even increase in the period between the hand-over of power and January, when general elections are scheduled.

"I personally am taking my security more seriously," said the minister of municipalities and public works, Nasreen Mustapha Berwari, who has survived two assassination attempts -- a remote-control bomb attack that struck her convoy south of Baghdad in January and a drive-by shooting in the northern town of Mosul in February.

Such attacks are a fact of life in a nation where dozens of functionaries, including police officers, neighborhood councilmen, well-known politicians and sheiks, have been killed since the U.S.-led ouster of Hussein's government last year.

The head of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, Ezzedine Salim, was assassinated last month in a suicide car bombing at an entrance to the heavily guarded Green Zone, the headquarters of the U.S.-led occupation authority.

A second council member, Salama Khafaji, escaped injury in an ambush south of Baghdad last month, but her son and her chief bodyguard were killed.

Aqila Hashimi, another female member of the Governing Council and a career diplomat, was assassinated last September.

Security measures for top government officials have tightened noticeably since the interim government was formed two weeks ago.

Paramilitary contractors, dispatched by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, guard the top four government officials: Allawi, President Ghazi Ajil Yawer and the two vice presidents.

Access to the four has been restricted to small groups and pool reporters. Armed guards often stand vigil during one-on-one interviews.

For those below the top four, the Interior Ministry provides a contingent of seven police officers and two vehicles for each minister's personal security detail, officials said.

However, many ministers prefer to organize their own protection through friends, relatives or tribal connections. Others worry about a lack of trusted bodyguard details.

"Some of these [ministers] were university professors living overseas," said Lt. Col. Walter Davis, the coalition's liaison with the Public Works Ministry. "Suddenly they have to look around to their friends and relatives -- most of whom are probably middle-aged white-collar professionals -- and say, 'Who's going to protect me?' "

At the subministerial level, officials are often left comparatively exposed, which may explain a recent spate of attacks on deputy ministers.

Kubba, a career diplomat and ambassador to China under Hussein, was shot Saturday morning by gunmen who ambushed his car in Baghdad's Adhamiya district, a largely Sunni Muslim neighborhood where anti-U.S. feelings have long run high. It was unclear whether he was traveling with bodyguards.

Kubba was wounded in the abdomen and died on the way to a hospital, authorities said.

A second attack Saturday wounded Gen. Hussein Mustafa Abdel Karim, chief of Iraq's Border Police Services, who was shot when his sedan was sprayed with bullets, officials said. On Wednesday, a similar assassination attempt against Deputy Health Minister Ammar Safar failed when his driver was able to elude attackers. Safar escaped without injury.

The attacks may lend urgency to the idea of a central government office to provide uniform, professional protection for all top government officials.

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