Bloody Start To Iraq Campaigning

Gunmen shot dead an Iraqi official as he was heading to work in Baghdad, as Iraq's election campaign kicked off.

Eight bodyguards of Qassim Mehawi, deputy head of the Communications Ministry, were also injured in the attack and were taken to the hospital, police officials said.

Government officials are frequent targets of the insurgents, who accuse them of collaborating with the Americans.

In other developments:

  • At the Pentagon, a senior U.S. commander said Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may now be operating out of Baghdad. Al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq group is believed to be leading a brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that victimize both Americans and Iraqis.
  • The United States' veteran health care system faces a flood tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq with serious mental health problems, The New York Times reports. An Army study finds that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. That number could rise to one in three, some experts believe.
  • A government official said that Saddam Hussein's notorious right-hand man, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," will be the first among 12 former regime members to appear at an initial investigative court hearing next week to face charges for crimes allegedly committed during Saddam's 35-year dictatorship.
  • Saddam Hussein met for the first time since his capture a year ago with a defense lawyer Thursday, the chief of the former dictator's legal team said. "He was in good health and his morale was high and very strong," said Ziad al-Khasawneh. "He looked much better that his earlier public appearance when he was arraigned a few months ago."
  • In western Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near a passing SUV, badly damaging the vehicle, police said. After the blast, gunmen opened up on the survivors with automatic fire, killing a foreigner and wounding two others, Al-Khadra police commissioner Ali Hussein Al-Hamadani said. There was no immediate information on their nationality.
  • Three Iraqi National Guardsmen died and six others were injured when another roadside bomb exploded in western Baghdad as their pickup truck was driving by, said Al-Hamadani.
  • On Wednesday, an explosion at one of the holiest shrines of Iraqi's majority Shiite population in the southern city of Karbala killed eight and wounded 40, including a prominent cleric, Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalayee. Local leaders said the attack was an attempt by militants to fuel a civil war between the Shiites and the minority Sunnis.

    Wednesday marked the launch of the campaign for a Jan. 30 vote for a 275-member National Assembly. The start of election campaigning was subdued due to security fears.

    In the northern city of Kirkuk, several thousand Arab residents rallied Thursday in front of the governor's office to demand that the elections be postponed.

    The protesters said they were worried that a campaign to return displaced Kurds to the city, where Saddam Hussein's regime drove out many Kurds and replaced them with Arabs from other areas, would alter Kirkuk's ethnic mix.

    On the final day of candidate registration on Wednesday, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and Washington favorite, announced his 240-member list of candidates, pitting him against the slate embraced by Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. About 90 parties and political movements have applied to be represented on ballots.

    Heading the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance list is Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and chief of its armed wing, the Iran-based Badr Brigade, during Saddam's rule.

    With the threatened Sunni boycott, the lists submitted make Allawi and al-Hakim the leading contenders to take top jobs in Iraq's next government.

    In the election, each faction will win a number of seats in the assembly proportional to the percentage of votes it gets nationwide — meaning the highest-listed candidates on each roster are most likely to be elected. The groups ending up strongest in the assembly will be in a powerful position — the body will elect a president and two deputies, who will nominate the prime minister. The assembly will also draw up a new constitution.

    Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population and are expected to dominate the polls.