Ali Lami, shown in 2010, is the highest-profile figure slain this year in… (Ali Saadi, Getty Images )
Reporting from Baghdad — A senior Iraqi official whose job was to bar former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the current government was shot dead on a busy street late Thursday, the latest in a wave of assassinations that have sowed panic in the country.
Ali Lami, the executive director of the committee that acts as Iraq's anti-Baath Party watchdog, was driving close to Sadr City in eastern Baghdad when a sedan blocked his car and a gunman using a silencer shot him. The bullets hit him in the head, and he died 20 minutes later, according to security officials and Lami's political allies. There were conflicting reports on whether his driver also died.
Lami's allies suspected that former Baath Party members were responsible, and they promised to bring pressure on the government over its failure to stop the targeted killings that have become part of Baghdad's daily life since the run-up to national elections in March 2010. According to unofficial estimates, more than 70 people died in such attacks in 2010 alone.
Senior ministry officials and security officers are regularly targeted, but Lami was the most high-profile victim this year. Iraqi officials have expressed alarm over the assassinations.
The killing of Lami, who was deeply involved in purging onetime Baath Party members, suggests that factions are still settling scores related to the country's recent civil war. The slaying pointed to the likelihood of continued tit-for-tat killings for years.
"My No. 1 suspect would be the Baath Party, which is basically infiltrating a huge amount of the security apparatus in Iraq," said Entifadh Qanbar, a close advisor to Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the committee that Lami helped run.
Qanbar depicted Lami as fearless, ignoring repeated calls to move into a fortified compound or to hire bodyguards. "He is the kind of guy who goes out and says, 'I don't care if they kill me.' He was a brave man. We are going to miss him."
Lami, who lived in Sadr City, was a symbol of the battle against the former Baath Party.
Qanbar predicted that the killing of such a high-level figure would rattle the government, which has failed to name its security ministers more than five months after the rest of the Cabinet was appointed.
"I think this will shake the government," Qanbar said. "This shows there is a big mole in the security system."
Iraq's military pledged to hunt down the killers. "We are following up all of these terrorists' networks, and we will get them all, even if it will take a while," said Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, spokesman for security forces in Baghdad. "The terrorists who assassinated … Lami and other Iraqis will not escape the grip of justice."
The committee administered by Lami had succeeded in striking 500 candidates from running for office in the 2010 elections, although many of them were replaced.
Lami also was trailed by allegations of murder and links to Shiite Muslim militias after U.S. forces detained him in 2008 for suspected involvement in the bombing of a Baghdad district council building. Released a year later, he said he was innocent of all charges.
Jaff is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad bureau.