Iraqi Official Gunned Down

Gunmen assassinated a provincial Iraqi official in the southern town of Diwaniyah, authorities said Wednesday, while some Baghdad residents complained of punitive U.S. raids against suspected rebel hideouts.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry in the capital said Hmud Kadhim, the ministry's director general in Diwaniyah province, 100 miles south of Baghdad, was shot to death by unknown assailants on Tuesday. An investigation was under way, the spokesman said.

Guerrillas have warned that they will assassinate Iraqis who collaborate with occupation authorities, including officials such as Kadhim whose job made him one of the top officials in Diwaniyah province.

On Tuesday night, U.S. forces again targeted an abandoned dye factory in southern Baghdad that was hit twice last week by artillery and air strikes. Aerial attacks were also reported on orchards and empty farmland surrounding the military base on Baghdad's western outskirts.

The military said the continuing attacks were part of Operation Iron Hammer, the new aggressive tactic of initiating attacks against insurgents before they strike.

In other developments:

  • An Arabic language newspaper published a statement signed by Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party declaring that armed resistance would continue despite plans to accelerate the transfer of power to Iraqis. "Those who occupy Iraq, be it through multinational forces under whatever arrangements, will be treated as occupiers that should be legal targets for resistance," the statement said.
  • A top U.S. commander says few of those battling U.S. troops in Iraq are foreign fighters. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr. said the decrease in foreign fighters crossing from Syria was due to a heavier U.S. troop deployment along the borders.
  • President Bush opened a state visit to Britain defending the invasion of Iraq as a necessary use of military power while likening reconstruction efforts to rebuilding a shattered Europe after two world wars. As many as 100,000 people were preparing to march through London to protest the Iraq war and occupation.
  • Iraq is willing to pay some of its billions of dollars in outstanding debts to Kuwait in natural gas, the interim Iraqi oil minister said. Iraq owes Kuwait some $15 billion from before the 1990 invasion, in addition to scores of billions in U.N.-approved reparations for the Gulf War.
  • Japan's prime minister said Wednesday that his nation had a responsibility to help rebuild Iraq, but he will decide whether to move ahead with plans to contribute peacekeepers only after determining if conditions on the ground are safe.

    In recent days, U.S. forces have used heavy artillery, battle tanks, attack helicopters, F-16 fighter-bombers and AC-130 gunships to pound targets throughout central Iraq, including Tikrit, Baqouba and Fallujah.

    The show of force came in response to an upsurge in guerrilla activity and a significant increase in the number of coalition casualties since the start of this month.

    Some residents expressed bewilderment at the choice of targets in territory fully controlled by coalition forces, and said there was no sign of any guerrilla activity in the area prior to the strikes.

    "They (the Americans) called on us from the tanks to stay at home because they were going to hit targets and they also said: 'If you want to watch our show you can go to the rooftops,'" Hamziya Ali, a housewife living near the plant, said Wednesday.

    "But me and my children spent the night shaking. We do not want to be their targets," she said. "Yesterday, they hit the factory and open fields which have not been used by any resistance members."

    In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, huge explosions were heard from the edge of town late Tuesday as U.S. troops fired mortars on areas allegedly used by insurgents to launch mortar and rocket attacks against coalition forces. Targets included an abandoned bunker that was part of Saddam's former military defenses south of the town and a farming area to the north.

    Officers said the targeted areas were uninhabited and the attacks were meant to intimidate anyone planning strikes against the coalition.

    Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports the U.S. may go back to the United Nations to try to get another resolution backing the newly revised plan for transferring power to Iraqis as early as June. The hope is that another U.N. vote might encourage foreign countries to offer troops.

    The U.S.-endorsed agreement calls for drafting, with U.S. help, an interim constitution, followed by the installation of a provisional government that will take over from U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer's coalition authority in June. That government will then stage national elections to pick a constituent assembly that will draft a permanent constitution.

    A senior Russian diplomat assailed the U.S. plan, saying it fails to duly engage the global community in rebuilding the country.

    Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov, Russia's diplomatic point man on Iraq, said that the agreement for a transfer of power was "signed in a secretive atmosphere and actually without regard for the views of the international community, neighboring countries and the United Nations Security Council," the Interfax news agency reported.

    Despite the Russian objections, the U.S.-led coalition is confident that Iraq's top Shiite cleric won't stand in the way of the plan. They also expect that supporters of a radical Shiite cleric strongly opposed to the U.S. occupation will be excluded from the political process to speed the return of power to Iraqis.

    There has been no word from top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani whether he supports the agreement reached by the Governing Council and U.S. authorities, and announced Saturday in Baghdad.

    But coalition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say al-Sistani has given his blessing to the project to members of the Iraqi Governing Council during visits to his home in the holy city of Najaf.

    As of Tuesday, 422 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq, with 284 deaths coming after the president declared major combat over on May 1. Other countries have lost 73 soldiers.