Chalabi attacked on road to inaugural assembly meeting

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The Independent Online

A convoy carrying the Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi was ambushed yesterday by gunmen in an apparent assassination attempt that left two of his bodyguards wounded.

A convoy carrying the Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi was ambushed yesterday by gunmen in an apparent assassination attempt that left two of his bodyguards wounded.

The attack came when Dr Chalabi was travelling to the inaugural meeting of the country's new 100-member interim national council, which was sworn in yesterday despite a series of mortar attacks on the heavily fortified "Green Zone" within which the ceremony was taking place.

The gunmen, who came under return fire from Dr Chalabi's bodyguards, laid their ambush at Latifiya, in the southern outskirts of Baghdad on a notoriously dangerous stretch of Highway 8 between the capital and Najaf. One theory is that the two missing French hostages may have been kidnapped on the same section of road while travelling to Najaf.

Dr Chalabi, who had been returning from the holy city after a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said after the ambush yesterday: "There are many terror bands there and we must work very hard very quickly to free this area from the scourge of the terrorists."

"One of our cars was left behind. We found it burnt and the bodies of two guards burnt inside it," Chalabi said.

"It was an ambush. I don't think there is anything further to say. These things are part of the job," he told reporters.

The INC leader, a Shia former exile who was a leading figure in the post-war Iraqi Governing Council and originally the Iraqi politician most favoured by the US Pentagon, continues to have a high profile despite the arrest warrant issued against him over allegations of counterfeiting Iraqi dinars. Mr Chalabi strongly denies the allegations.

A US military spokesman said yesterday that at least two mortar rounds had landed inside the "Green Zone" that houses the Convention Centre, where yesterday's national council opened, along with government offices and the US and British embassies. But the swearing-in of the council members, picked by the recent Iraqi National Conference, along with 19 from the now disbanded Governing Council, took place without disruption.

The composition of the council, which can veto decrees by the interim government if it can command a two-thirds majority and is intended to hold government decisions to account, comprises of about 45 from the majority Shia population and 44 Sunni. The council will fulfil its role until the national elections, planned for January.

Meanwhile, police said gunmen had shot dead three Iraqi women who worked at a US base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. A fourth woman who was travelling in the same vehicle escaped unharmed but their driver was injured.

While another hostage, a Jordanian civil servant, was seized in Iraq, there was welcome news for the families of seven foreign truck drivers, who had been kidnapped six weeks ago. The men, from India, Kenya and Egypt and employed by a Kuwait-based company, were released after the insurgent group "The Holders of the Black Banners" withdrew most of their demands for the men's governments and employers to leave the country.

The kidnapped Jordanian, Alaa Thabet Haswa, had been in Iraq on a private visit and had not returned as expected on August 27. In Amman, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Ayed said the family of the man, who worked for the Ministry of Municipalities had been telephoned by the kidnappers but that he did not know what ransom had been demanded.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported from Dubai that Iraqi oil terminals were fully operational despite attacks last week on southern pipelines by insurgents. A port agent said exports were running at between 1.7m and 1.9m barrels a day.