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Politicians' Families in Line of Fire

The slaying of an Iraqi vice president's sister is the latest in a series of assaults, indicating that relatives of officials are becoming targets.

April 28, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Being a politician has long been among the most risky of occupations in Iraq. Now, it's become increasingly dangerous just to be related to one.

The sister of Tariq Hashimi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, died in a blast of bullets Thursday, cut down in her SUV along with her bodyguard as she drove to work through a dicey Baghdad neighborhood. The gunmen escaped, leaving a grieving family to wonder who killed 60-year-old Maysoon Hashimi, and on whose orders.

They still don't know who killed Hashimi's brother Mahmoud in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad two weeks ago.

Even tightly guarded politicians -- from Sunnis such as Hashimi to Kurdish lawmakers and Shiite clerics -- have been shot or blown up in Iraq's Hobbesian landscape over the last three years. And several children have died in attacks aimed at their politician parents.

But there are signs that vulnerable siblings and other family members may now be targets as well. Killers who can't penetrate Baghdad's Green Zone, where most senior officials live, or find a way past the armored cars and bristling weaponry of a politician's personal entourage, appear to be seeking out relatives who live with minimal or nonexistent security.

In January, kidnappers snatched the sister of former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite. She was released two weeks later.

The brother and niece of Khalaf Ulayyan, general secretary of the Sunni Iraqi National Dialogue Council, were kidnapped in Ramadi last month and are still missing.

And on April 17, the body of Taha Mutlak, brother of Sunni politician Saleh Mutlak, was discovered in Baghdad, three weeks after he had been abducted.

"I have brothers and sisters in the village; how can I protect them?" an anguished Mutlak said Thursday. "You lose family, you lose friends, you lose your people. If we [politicians] are not able to create security, to bring a smile to Iraq, I cannot see why these people should sacrifice their lives.

"If we are doing all this in the name of nothing more than who gets what government positions, then politics is not worth it." Mutlak said his family had never openly blamed him for his brother's death, but he feels the weight of the risks he exposes them to.

"Maybe they are too shy to tell me," he said. "But deep down, I think they believe I am responsible for what has happened to them."

Punishing innocents for the political activities of others echoes the Saddam Hussein period, when the dictator's Sunni-dominated government brutally persecuted Shiite and Kurdish political movements.

But Sunnis, who were protected under Hussein, now face a host of enemies, including fellow Sunnis who have joined the anti-American insurgency.

In a videotaped diatribe broadcast this week, Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi accused Sunni politicians participating in the nation's nascent democracy of being agents of the United States.

"Breaking taboos will always be dangerous," said Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni politician who made enemies by visiting Israel in 2004. Alusi's two sons were killed during an attack on one of his convoys a few months later.

"But many Iraqis are paying the price -- not just the politicians," Alusi said.

Hashimi had dismissed Zarqawi's threat at a Baghdad news conference Wednesday, issuing a public call for terrorism to be crushed by force. Shiite leaders had urged the newly appointed Sunni vice president to make a declaration against the insurgency.

"I say, yes, we're agents," Hashimi said when asked about Zarqawi's threats. "We're agents for Islam, for the oppressed. We have to defend the future of our people."

A day later, he was burying his sister.

"What astonished us is that they targeted a woman -- this shows how wicked the attackers are," Ziyad Ani, a senior official in Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party told the Associated Press.

Sunni politicians complain that they get no protection from the Shiite-run Interior Ministry. And some Sunnis contend that when then-Interior Minister Jabr's sister was abducted, he unleashed the full resources of his department's security services, which tracked her down.

"The government knows who is making these threats against us," Mutlak said. "The Americans know it too. Yet they do nothing."

Mutlak said he is investigating his brother's slaying himself. "I'm trying right now, but I don't have the law with me," he said. "I want to do it legally. I don't want to make a militia and go kill them.

"The people who run militias are the ones hurting Iraq," he said. "I don't want to be one of them."

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