Sat, Jan 15, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Group claims responsibility for killing Iraqi cleric

AP , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

An Iraqi insurgent group claimed responsibility yesterday for an attack that killed an aide to the country's senior Shiite cleric.

The Sunni Muslim group of Ansar al-Sunnah said it singled out Sheik Mahmoud Finjan in part as a leading booster of Jan. 30 national elections, which stand to increase the power of Iraq's long-suppressed Shiite Muslim majority.

Finjan, a representative of the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was shot late Wednesday as he returned home after evening prayers.

The attack, in the town of Salman Pak southeast of Baghdad, also killed Finjan's son and four bodyguards.

The assault was the latest blamed on Iraqi Sunni extremists in what's expected to be an escalating campaign of violence meant to intimidate voters ahead of this month's vote.

Ansar al-Sunnah said in a statement on a Web site used by insurgents that it targeted Finjan as a supporter to Sistani and as "a big supporter of the elections."

"We also call upon all brother citizens not to participate in the elections because we are going to attack voting centers," the group said.

Ansar al-Sunnah has emerged as one of Iraq's deadliest homegrown extremist group, owing to attacks that rival those blamed on al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and other outsiders. The group is believed an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam, an older movement with international links.

Attacks claimed by Ansar al-Sunnah include a December suicide bombing that killed 22 people, mostly Americans, at a US military mess tent at the northern city of Mosul; the August executions of 12 Nepalese construction workers; and twin suicide bombings in February that killed 109 members of Iraq's assertive Kurd minority.

Meanwhile, Gunmen killed three officials of a leading Kurdish political party in an ambush at the volatile northern city of Mosul, another official of the party said yesterday.

Unknown attackers opened fire on the men's car, said Hashim Zibari of the Kurdish Democratic Party. The attack was Thursday.

Mosul, a heavily Arab city northwest of Baghdad with a significant Kurdish population, has been one of several cities to see increasing violence in the run-up to scheduled Jan. 30 elections.

The Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani is one of two main factions of Iraq's Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

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