Mortars And Bombs Kill 3 Iraqis

A car bomb exploded in a busy Mosul market Thursday and mortar rounds struck near the Italian Embassy and an Iraqi National Guard base in Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding at least seven, while Iraq's leading Shiites move closer to finalizing the makeup of a coalition to stand at next month's elections.

Shiite figures supporting Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, were expected to make an announcement later Thursday about the final composition of a group of powerful Shiite political parties and independents, to be known as the United Iraqi Alliance, a source said.

The coalition is expected to include Iraq's two main Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and the Dawa party, plus members of the Sadrist movement of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress is also expected to take part.

Hussain al-Shahristani, a member of the six-person committee drawing up the candidates list, said this week that half the slots are expected to go to independents and also include members of "main Sunni tribes from northern Iraq and Mosul."

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is expected to be absent from the ticket, which, some fear, poses the risk of dividing the Shiite vote at the Jan. 30 polls. Al-Shahristani said that Allawi's party "had been invited to take part in this alliance ... but they preferred to be on another list."

Shiites comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million population. But despite their weight of numbers, they've enjoyed little political power in Iraq, particularly under deposed leader Saddam Hussein, who belonged to Iraq's minority Sunni community.

In other developments:

  • The U.S. general directing Iraq's reconstruction said Thursday the military is working as fast as possible to return tens of thousands of people displaced by recent fighting in Fallujah.
  • Japan's Cabinet on Thursday approved a plan to keep its 550 non-combat troops in southern Iraq for another year. The current mission, focusing on water purification and other reconstruction projects, had been scheduled to expire next Tuesday.
    In renewed violence, two Iraqis were injured after a car bomb exploded in eastern Mosul, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said. Iraqi policeman Hassan Ahmed said the blast happened in an eastern Mosul fruit and vegetable market.

    Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has been the scene of regular attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces by insurgents aimed at derailing the country's reconstruction ahead of next month's elections.

    The bombing came a day after clashes in the city between police and insurgents killed four militants.

    Militants also fired multiple mortar rounds toward an Iraqi National Guard base and the nearby Italian Embassy in Baghdad's Waziriyah neighborhood. Police Lt. Hussein Ali said three civilians were killed and five wounded in the attack.

    "I heard an explosion and went to see what caused it and then another mortar came in and hit me," blast victim Bassem Mal-allah said from a nearby hospital.

    Rebels launched a series of attacks against U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad on Wednesday, leaving five Iraqis dead and several more wounded.

    Samarra's police chief Maj. Gen. Talib Shamel al-Samarrai announced his resignation, saying he was unable to do his job properly.

    Resignations of top police officials, rampant absenteeism in the force and continuing assaults on police stations have raised concerns about the feasibility of holding elections next month to choose a 275-seat assembly, whose primary task will be drafting a permanent constitution for this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

    Al-Sistani has been working to unite Iraq's majority Shiites ahead of the vote to ensure victory, plus include representatives from Iraq's other diverse communities. The Iranian-born cleric is overseeing the work of top aides seeking to compile a 165-candidate list, which would be put to the voters nationwide.

    In another play for post-election power, a senior Kurdish official said a Kurd should be made either president or prime minister following the polls.

    "We have the right to ask for one of the (two) top positions in the government after the elections and we insist on taking one of them," Arsalan Biez, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's political bureau, said from the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah, 162 miles northeast of Baghdad.

    "We are as a nation like other world's nations and we must receive our rights and demands."

    Kurds are estimated to number between 15 and 20 percent of the population and have enjoyed regional self-rule in the north since 1991. Kurdish statehood aspirations have alarmed neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran, which fear that granting Iraqi Kurds an ethnic enclave could incite separatist sentiments among Kurdish minorities within their own borders.

    Iran, meanwhile, rejected accusations that it was trying to influence the vote in neighboring Iraq, saying the Iraqi people have made clear they won't take orders from abroad, state media reported.

    "The Iraqi people have a shining record in fighting foreign exploitation and occupation and have proven that they won't accept foreign domination," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying.

    He was reacting to comments made Wednesday by interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer and Jordan's King Abdullah II, both Sunni Muslims, in which they accused overwhelmingly Shiite Iran of trying to influence the outcome of the election.

    "Unfortunately, some political currents in Iraq seek to tarnish the trend of elections there and cause concern in the public opinion," Asefi said.