Former Iraqi prime minister says mob tried to kill him

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The former Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, says a mob tried to assassinate him as he prayed at the main Shia shrine in Najaf.

Mr Allawi had gone to the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali as part of his campaign for the 15 December election. "As I was praying, a group of 60 or 70 people, wearing black uniforms and carrying swords and pistols moved towards us as they chanted slogans against us," he said yesterday. "It became clear it was an assassination attempt."

Accounts of what happened are contradictory. Television pictures show Mr Allawi running from the shrine as shoes and stones were thrown at him. Police said that a dozen people, some of them carrying clubs, had tried to stop Mr Allawi entering the shrine.

The incident illustrates the growing tensions in Iraq. Mr Allawi is a Shia, but is standing as a secular nationalist to appeal to Sunni as well as Shia voters. In August 2004, when he was prime minister, he let US marines assault the Mehdi army militia of populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The mob at the shrine "were planning to kill us or at least me," Mr Allawi said when he got back to Baghdad yesterday. "One of them took out his pistol, but he panicked and it fell from his hand." While the attack was probably not a pre-planned assassination, such outbreaks at the shrine have led to killings in the past. In April 2003, Sayed Majid al-Khoei, a Shia religious leader, was trapped in the shrine by an armed mob which ultimately murdered him.

Mr Allawi's attempt to win both Shia and Sunni votes may be doomed by the deepening sectarian divide in Iraq. In the last election, in January, he won 1.6 million votes, of which 1 million were in Shia areas of southern Iraq. But in a recent interview, Mr Allawi offended many Shia by saying that, in many ways, conditions in Iraq were worse today than under Saddam Hussein.

The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, immensely influential among the Shia who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, put out a statement at the weekend saying that the faithful should not vote for secular parties or small parties. In effect, this is an instruction to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of 17 religious parties. The most likely outcome of the election is a government based on an alliance of the Kurds and Shia religious parties.

The trial of the former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, which resumes today in Baghdad, is beset by difficulties arising from Iraq's bloody past and its present-day war.

One of the five judges has stepped down after learning that one of the accused may have been involved in the execution of his brother. Both the name of the departing judge or his replacement are being kept secret for security reasons. Two defence lawyers have been murdered and one has fled the country.

Saddam and seven co-defendants are charged with killing more than 140 people from Dujail, north of Baghdad, in 1982 after a failed attempt to shoot the president. The court will now hear the evidence of 10 witnesses.

The office of the National Security Adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said yesterday that a plot had been discovered to disrupt the trial. It said Iraqi intelligence had discovered that the 1920 Revolution Brigades had planned to fire rockets at the court building tomorrow but did not say if anybody had been arrested.