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U.N. Elections Team Arrives in Baghdad

February 7, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade Saturday at a bus carrying Iraqi soldiers west of Baghdad, wounding five of them and a civilian bystander, officials said. Also Saturday, a U.N. team arrived in Baghdad to study whether elections can be held before the handover of power to Iraqis by June 30, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced.

Elsewhere, U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Iraq captured a suspected member of Ansar al-Islam, a radical Muslim group, as he tried to enter the country from Iran, an Iraqi official said.

U.S. and Kurdish officials believe Ansar al-Islam is linked to al-Qaida and may have been behind last weekend’s twin suicide bombings in the northern city of Irbil.

The attack on the Iraqi army bus took place near the mayor’s office in Fallujah, a hotbed of the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle west of the capital, said 1st Lt. Raad Mussab of Iraq’s army. The attackers escaped.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, told reporters Saturday about 300 Iraqi police had been killed since the force was reconstituted last year and ``the trend line is going up.″

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the attacks aim to ``isolate the coalition″ by attacking Iraqis who work with it.

In Cairo, an Arab League report obtained Saturday by The Associated Press accuses the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq of threatening Iraqi and regional stability by empowering Kurdish and Shiite Muslim groups.

The report, drawn up by an Arab League delegation that visited Iraq in December, reflects fears among Arab countries that a post-Saddam Hussein government would give a large amount of authority to Kurdish and Shiite Muslim groups, and that those minority groups in neighboring countries would be inspired to rise up and demand more power.

The report does not name the country’s Shiites, but it uses the term ``sectarianism″ to refer to Shiite and Kurdish political aspirations.

``Iraqis find geographical and ethnic federalism a prelude to division of the country,″ said the report, which is circulating among the league’s 22 members but has not been made public.

The alleged Ansar al-Islam member, Warzir Ali Wali Mamoyi, was arrested Thursday at a checkpoint in Kurdish-controlled Sulaimaniyah province, according to Omar Ghareeb, a local civil administration official.

He described Mamoyi as a member of a committee that issues policy statements for Ansar al-Islam, a mostly Kurdish militant group that follows a strict interpretation of Islam.

Kurdish officials believe Ansar al-Islam carried out the Sunday suicide bombings at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Irbil, which killed 109 people. Another group, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on a Web site. U.S. officers believe Ansar al-Sunna is a splinter group of Ansar al-Islam.

A Kurdish newspaper, Kurdistani Nuwe, said Friday that Mamoyi was planning to travel to the Sunni Triangle area, possibly to link up with anti-U.S. insurgents from the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

Announcing the arrival of the U.N. envoys, Annan said the team will begin ``intensive consultations″ with Iraqi leaders and members of the U.S.-led coalition, hoping to listen to the views of all Iraqi constituencies.

Annan sent the team to break an impasse between the country’s leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, and the U.S.-led occupation authority over the timetable for elections and the transfer of power.

Al-Sistani demands that the new legislature be elected, while the Americans want the members appointed in 18 regional caucuses. The legislature will choose a new sovereign government that will take office by July 1.

Meanwhile in Baqouba, assailants tossed a bomb inside an empty Iraqi police car parked in front of a restaurant where the officers were having lunch, witness Ali Abed said. The bomb devastated the vehicle but caused no casualties.

Also Saturday, about 200 former employees of the Ministry of Information gathered near the coalition headquarters in Baghdad to demand pay. The employees were fired in May 2003 after occupation authorities dissolved the ministry, a mouthpiece of Saddam’s regime.

``We are in the new Iraq and this is an injustice, unfair and we want our salaries because we are not criminals,″ shouted Yasmin Adnan, a former translator at the ministry.

The Information Ministry, which monitored journalists during Saddam’s regime, gained notoriety when its chief, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, denied that American troops were in Baghdad even as American tanks could be seen on the grounds of Saddam’s Republican Palace.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb Friday exploded in Baghdad, wounding two U.S. soldiers. No further details were released.

Roadside bombs are a major threat to U.S. troops across the country. A review of Pentagon casualty reports shows that of 39 deaths in January that the Army attributed to hostile action, 23 involved attacks with homemade bombs, which the military calls ``improvised explosive devices.″

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