Gunmen ambush Iraqi Airways employees on deadly airport road
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Gunmen opened fire Thursday on a bus carrying female employees of Iraqi Airways to the Baghdad airport, killing one woman and wounding 14 others, an airline official said.
The new violence came as Britain agreed to a U.S. request to move nearly 900 British troops from the south to more volatile central Iraq in order to free up American forces for a stepped-up campaign against Sunni insurgents.
The British government agreed to the move despite fierce opposition within the governing Labour Party – where many saw it as a political gift to President Bush ahead of November elections – and fears it could mean more casualties for the British.
U.S. commanders have spoken of a new offensive ahead of Iraq’s crucial elections in January aimed at suppressing insurgents who control a number of central Sunni Muslim cities, particularly the stronghold of Fallujah, where peace negotiations with city leaders have broken down.
Fallujah leaders on Thursday called on Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s government to force a halt to the frequent U.S. airstrikes in the city. A day earlier, a senior Sunni cleric, Sheik Harith al-Dari, urged Iraqis to boycott January’s elections if the Americans launch an all-out attack on the city.
“We demand the suspension of airstrikes and call on the government to call on families to return to their homes as a gesture of goodwill and a prelude to the solution of all outstanding problems,” the Fallujah leaders said in a statement after an emergency meeting at city hall.
Also Thursday, the highest ranking soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal was sentenced to eight years in prison for abusing inmates at the prison. Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, 38, of Buckingham, Va., was also given a reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge.
The sentencing came a day after he pleaded guilty Wednesday to eight counts of abusing and humiliating Iraqi detainees. He had faced a maximum possible sentence of 11 years in prison.
In other violence in Iraq, hospital officials said Thursday that a pair of suicide car bombings in Samarra killed 10 Iraqi civilians and injured 14 others. Earlier reports put the death toll at one.
Residents said the twin blasts Wednesday afternoon ruined five shops and that sporadic gunfire broke out afterward, damaging several vehicles in Samarra, a city 60 miles north of Baghdad, that U.S. and Iraqi forces retook earlier this month from insurgents.
Iraqi officials have cited Samarra as an example of how U.S. and government forces can take control of restive cities which became insurgent strongholds after the Americans transferred sovereignty back to the Iraqis on June 28.
Meanwhile, the husband of the kidnapped director of CARE International’s operation in Iraq made a plea in Baghdad for her release, saying she has spent her life helping Iraqis.
Margaret Hassan, a British-Irish-Iraqi national, was abducted on her way to work early Tuesday by gunmen who blocked her route and dragged the driver and a companion from the car, said her husband Tahseen Ali Hassan.
“Release my wife. She’s Iraqi; she’s working for a humanitarian organization and I ask you to release her,” Ali Hass said, addressing the kidnappers, at a press conference.
Margaret Hassan, who has worked in Iraq for three decades, is the most high-profile figure to fall victim to a wave of kidnappings sweeping Iraq in recent months. CARE International has suspended its operations in Iraq.
Ali Hassan said no group has claimed responsibility for her abduction so far and he did not know if she was taken by a religious or political group.
“I was really shocked, I couldn’t believe it myself. She’s not involved in politics or religion,” he said. “I’m shattered, I haven’t slept.”
Insurgents often target Iraqis seen as cooperating with American or government institutions.
The attack on the airline workers occurred on the main road linking the airport with central Baghdad, an airline official said on condition of anonymity. The U.S. State Department has described travel between central Baghdad and the airport as “particularly dangerous.”
The official said the attack killed one person and wounded 14 – all women.
The Iraqi government had been negotiating with Fallujah representatives in hopes of ending the standoff in the city and allowing the Iraqi National Guard to take over security duties there.
But the talks broke down last week over what the Fallujah negotiators called the “impossible condition” that the city hand over al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters. Fallujah leaders claim al-Zarqawi isn’t there.
In Fallujah, city leaders issued a list of other demands, including compensation for damaged property, having National Guardsmen who will move into the city come from Fallujah and surrounding area, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the city’s outskirts.
After Sheik al-Dhari called for an election boycott if the Americans attack, Interior Ministry adviser Sabah Khadhim said a boycott was the wrong way to address the problems in Fallujah.
“The right way is to participate in activities … in the same manner in which we solved the problem of Najaf, where the police now is helping the people in establishing security,” he told Al-Arabiya television.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have stepped up operations seeking to curb insurgent violence so that Iraqi voters throughout the country can choose a new transitional government in January.
But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari complained Wednesday that the United Nations has not sent enough election experts to help prepare for the balloting.
“It is unfortunate that the contribution and participation of U.N. employees in this process is not up to expectations,” Zebari told reporters.
He said the number of U.N. workers expected to help in the election was far smaller than the 300 workers the United Nations sent for the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor.