BAGHDAD (AP) – The head of Iraq’s main Sunni parliamentary bloc was killed in a bold daylight attack after delivering a sermon during Friday prayers at a mosque in western Baghdad, raising fears that insurgents are trying to rekindle sectarian violence.
A gunman believed to be as young as 15 shot Harith al-Obeidi as he left the mosque and walked toward his nearby home, police said. There were conflicting accounts about what happened next.
Guards at the scene said the assailant was chased a few hundred yards down the street, then detonated a grenade, killing himself and an undetermined number of pursuers. But an Interior Ministry official said guards killed the attacker after he threw the grenade during a shootout. At least four other people, including a worshipper, were killed and several others were wounded, according to the official, who read details from the police report on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
“While we were leaving the mosque we heard a gunshot fired, followed by an explosion,” said Majid Hameed, a 50-year-old worshipper wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel. “I blame the security forces for allowing gunmen to enter the neighborhood even though all entrances are blocked by checkpoints.”
Al-Obeidi, who led the Iraqi Accordance Front, was known as a fierce advocate of prisoners’ rights, a divisive issue in relations between the disaffected Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite-led government.
He championed their cause to the end, saying in his sermon that “nobody dares to tell the ruler that such imprisonment is wrong.”
The brazen shooting followed a spate of high-profile bombings that U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned are part of an effort by insurgents to re-ignite sectarian violence and undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who warned a day earlier that violence was likely to increase ahead of the parliamentary vote set for the end of January, promised an investigation into the attack.
“This cowardly crime is a futile attempt to incite sectarian rifts among the Iraqi people and to prove that terrorist organizations are still there after these organizations have received hard punches by our armed forces,” he said in a statement read on Iraqi state TV.
Sunni lawmakers also blamed “terrorist and sectarian groups” trying to foment violence, saying al-Obeidi was on good terms with Iraq’s fractured parties.
Accordance Front spokesman and fellow lawmaker Salim Abdullah also questioned how the attackers were able to penetrate the tight security in the neighborhood. He alleged that Al Qaeda in Iraq has again infiltrated the area.
Al-Obeidi’s party is the Congress of the People of Iraq, one of three parties making up the Iraqi Accordance Front, which has 44 seats in Iraq’s 275-member parliament. The other two parties in the bloc are the Iraqi Islamic Party and the National Dialogue Council.
The lawmaker was chosen to lead the bloc in May after his predecessor, Ayad al-Samarraie, became parliamentary speaker.
Shatha al-Abousi, a fellow Sunni lawmaker and member of the parliamentary human rights committee, said al-Obeidi was 47 years old, had two wives and eight children. He also was a university professor with a doctorate in Islamic studies and often gave mosque sermons on Friday, the traditional Islamic day of prayer.
“He was calling for national reconciliation. He was trying to unify all Iraqis,” she said. “Through his Friday sermons, he was calling for peace and unity. He also disclosed the crimes and torture taking place in Iraqi prisons.”
The mainly Sunni neighborhood was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad before local tribal leaders joined forces with the Americans against Al Qaeda in Iraq two years ago, helping to lead to the overall decline in violence.
The persistent violence has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security as U.S. forces start to withdraw.
A U.S. commander in the northern city of Mosul announced that Iraqi police have arrested two of their own in connection with a Feb. 24 ambush on an American platoon at a police station that left one U.S. soldier dead.
The two suspects, believed to be an Iraqi police officer and a sergeant, opened fire on a U.S. patrol visiting one of the main Iraqi police training sites. An American soldier and an interpreter were killed and five others were wounded in the attack.
The two men were arrested during a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid early Monday and are in the custody of Iraqi police, according to Army Col. Gary Volesky, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq’s Ninevah province.
In other violence Friday, a bomb planted on a bicycle exploded in eastern Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine others, according to police and hospital officials.