Sunni leader shot dead at Baghdad mosque

A teenage assassin has shot and killed the head of the largest Sunni bloc in Iraq's parliament as he was leaving a mosque in west Baghdad. The attack emphasises the extreme violence of Iraqi politics as US troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities and towns at the end of the month.

Harith al-Obaidi was head of Tawafiq, a party representing the Sunni Arabs who make up a fifth of the Iraqi population, and was known for his campaigning on behalf of prisoners. His assassination will raise the political temperature regardless of who was behind his killing.

The police account of what happened is that Mr Obaidi had been speaking at prayers in the al-Shawaf mosque in the Yarmouk district of Baghdad. A man aged 15 to 18 entered the mosque and shot Mr Obaidi twice in the head, before opening fire on the crowd of worshippers and then detonating a grenade. He was shot dead by mosque guards. Four other people were killed.

The assassination bears the hallmark of an al-Qa'ida killing since the attacker must have known he would be killed. Despite criticising the government of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Tawafiq group was a member of it. This would be enough to make him a target for al-Qa'ida, though yesterday many Sunni Muslims in west Baghdad were speculating that the killer was a Shia.

Mr Obaidi was not particularly well known, and had taken over the leadership of Tawafiq only last month, when his predecessor, Ayaf al-Samarai, was elected as Speaker of the parliament. It is likely that al-Qa'ida in Iraq wants to show that it is still an organisation to be feared inside and outside its own Sunni community.

Three days ago al-Qa'ida had shown it had a long reach when a car bomb exploded in the Shia heartlands of southern Iraq. It blew up in the small and poor town of Batha, 20 miles from the southern city of Nassariya, killing at least 30 people and wounding 65.

In the past al-Qa'ida has sought to provoke Shia revenge attacks in the hope that this would induce a frightened Sunni community to rally to al-Qa'ida as the defenders of their community. So far such attempts to reignite the savage Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war of 2006-07 have failed. Even when there was a double bombing near the al-Khadamiya Shia shrine in Baghdad in late April there was little reaction. Yet Shia and Sunni in Baghdad remain fearful of each other and deeply apprehensive that there will be a return to the bloodletting of two years ago. Communal hostility has remained within bounds, though there is no sign of Sunni, Shia or Kurds resolving their political differences.

"The main problem in Iraq is that the leaders are disunited," says Mahmoud Othman, an independent member of parliament. "Security is better, but there is no guarantee that security will remain as it is."

Sunni were asking yesterday how an assassin was able to get past the checkpoints which choke traffic all over Baghdad. Suicide bombers or lone killers remain extremely hard to detect in the crowded Iraqi capital.

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