BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The governor and police chief of Iraq’s southern Shi’ite province of Diwaniya were among six people killed by a roadside bomb on Saturday, police said.
Diwaniya Governor Khalil Jalil Hamza and police chief Major-General Khaled Hassan were returning to the provincial capital of the same name, 180 km (110 miles) south of Baghdad, when their convoy of four-wheel drives was hit by the bomb. They had been attending the funeral of a leading tribal sheikh in the town of Efaj, 30 km (18 miles) east of the city. Three of their bodyguards were killed in the blast.
Hassan had been in the job for less than a week, police said. Hamza was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the biggest Shi’ite party in Iraq.
The party’s armed wing, the Badr Organisation, has been in conflict with the Mehdi Army militia of powerful anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated south has become increasingly restless as factions vie for control of the oil-rich region, often pitting police loyal to one bloc against militiamen of others.
U.S. forces have also been pursuing what they describe as rogue elements of Sadr’s Mehdi Army, who are accused of bringing in weapons and receiving training from neighbouring Iran. There were heavy clashes in mid-April when U.S. and Iraqi forces fought to wrest control of the city back from the Mehdi Army.
North of Baghdad, U.S. forces have claimed success in denying Sunni Islamist al Qaeda control of towns and villages along the fertile Diyala River valley in Diyala province.
Thousands of extra U.S. and Iraqi forces were sent to religiously mixed Diyala in recent months after a security crackdown launched in Baghdad in mid-February forced al Qaeda fighters and insurgents out of Baghdad into surrounding areas. “We have forces throughout the Diyala valley in key critical nodes. We cross any line of communications, deny the enemy freedom of movement. Everything they do is watched,” Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Poppas, commander of U.S. forces in the area, told reporters in Baghdad by video link. He said al Qaeda fighters had fled from the Diyala provincial capital, Baquba.
The security operations in Baghdad and Diyala are part of a wider push utilising 30,000 extra U.S. troops meant to buy time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s fractured coalition government to reach political targets set by Washington.
The benchmarks, including a revenue-sharing oil law, are designed to promote reconciliation between Iraq’s warring Shi’ite majority and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.
Washington is unhappy with Maliki’s slow progress towards the benchmarks and U.S. President George W. Bush is under increasing pressure to show results in the unpopular war or start bringing troops home.
A crucial progress report by General David Petraeus, U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker is due to be handed to Congress in mid-September. Other members of the U.S.-led coalition are also showing signs of impatience.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard wrote to Maliki last week to tell him to pick up the pace of reform or face a possible withdrawal of Australia’s 1,500-strong troop deployment, The Weekend Australian newspaper said on Saturday.