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Aide To Top Iraq Cleric Killed

Gunmen killed a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, along with the aide's son and four bodyguards in a town south of Baghdad, an official in the cleric's office said Thursday.

With the killing, insurgents trying to derail Iraq's Jan. 30 elections appear to be sending a message to al-Sistani, who strongly supports the vote. Insurgents have targeted electoral workers and candidates.

Sheik Mahmoud Finjan, al-Sistani's representative in the town of Salman Pak, 12 miles southeast of Baghdad, was shot dead Wednesday night as he was returning home from a mosque where he performed the evening prayers, the official said on condition of anonymity. His son and four bodyguards were also killed, the official at al-Sistani's office in this Shiite holy city said.

Shiites make 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and are expected to dominate the 275-member National Assembly in the first free elections held in Iraq since it became independent in 1932. Some Sunnis, who are 20 percent of the population, fear a loss of the dominance and privilege they enjoyed for decades.

In other developments:

  • Iraqi election workers hide their jobs from neighbors and even family members for fear of assassination, the New York Times reports.
  • A senior U.S. official is downplaying the importance of the planned Iraqi elections at the end of the month and urged people not to focus too much on the turnout and results, the Washington Post reports. "I would ... really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections," the official said at a White House briefing, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official said people should rather think of the transition to democracy as an achievement it itself.
  • A soldier accused of being the ringleader of inmate abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison may testify in his own defense Thursday. Army Specialist Charles Graner's lawyers have been trying to blame abuses on ruthless intelligence officers who controlled part of the prison and its guards.
  • Prosecutors said actions by a Navy SEAL lieutenant accused of abusing an Iraqi at Abu Ghraib prison were "unacceptable by any standard," while the officer's lawyer said nothing he did warranted a court-martial. The arguments came as a five-day military court hearing, the equivalent of a civilian grand jury, concluded Wednesday in San Diego. The Navy's top SEAL, Rear Adm. Joe Maguire, will decide whether the officer should face court-martial. He did not say when he would issue his recommendation.
  • Oil resumed flowing through a major pipeline linking Kirkuk's oil fields with the northern refinery of Beiji following a three-week stoppage caused by a sabotage attack, an official with the North Oil Co. said Thursday.
  • In France, President Jacques Chirac was holding talks Thursday with the interim president of Iraq in a bid to develop a dialogue with Iraqi authorities as elections in the violence-wracked country draw near.

    Elsewhere, gunmen opened fire on a minibus picking up a Turkish businessman from a central Baghdad hotel on Thursday, killing six Iraqis and kidnapping the Turk, who reportedly ran a construction company that worked with U.S.-led occupation authorities.

    The attack took place at 6:30 a.m. outside the Bakhan Hotel as a minibus arrived to collect a Turkish businessman, identified by police as Abdulkadir Tanrikulu. Six Iraqis on board — the driver and five employees of the businessman — were killed, police Lt. Bassam al-Abed said.

    The gunmen abducted Tanrikulu, leaving the pavement in front of the hotel stained with blood. A Turkish news channel said the construction company was working in Iraq with Americans. A hotel employee who gave only his first name, Alaa, said he had been in Iraq for about a year.

    Insurgents have routinely targeted Iraqis and foreigners working with the U.S.-led coalition.

    In other violence Thursday, gunmen shot dead a member of the Diyala province's local council in the city of Baqoubah, northeast of Baghdad. Mouayad Sami was slain in front of his house, a doctor at the Baqoubah General Hospital said on condition of anonymity.

    Hours earlier in Baqoubah, a roadside bomb exploded as an Iraqi police patrol was passing, killing a police officer and wounding six others, police Lt. Hussein Jasim said.

    In the capital, U.S. forces searching for those behind the assassination this month of Baghdad's provincial governor raided a mosque and detained two more suspects, the military said Thursday.

    Wednesday's raid on Al Khashab mosque followed one a day earlier on a house in the city's northern Hurriyah neighborhood in which six suspects were detained.

    The governor, Ali al-Haidari, was killed on Jan. 4 when gunmen fired on his armoured BMW. The attack also killed six of his bodyguards.

    Residents reported seeing insurgents fleeing inside the mosque after the shooting and said weapons had been stockpiled there, the military said in a statement.

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