Michael Georgy | Baghdad | September 1
Reuters – Blasts echoed across Baghdad on Wednesday just hours after insurgents fired mortars toward a venue where the first meeting of the national assembly was held, a stark reminder of Iraq’s risky road to elections.
Reporters at the national assembly said the second series of blasts could also be heard during the meeting.
Gunmen also opened fire on a convoy carrying the prominent Shi’ite politician and former Pentagon ally, Ahmad Chalabi, as he traveled from the southern city of Najaf to Baghdad. He survived but two associates were wounded.
The U.S. army said the five mortar rounds exploded before the assembly’s inaugural session inside the fortified Green Zone compound. The assembly, which opened on schedule at 0300 EDT, is charged with paving the way for elections due in January 2005.
One Iraqi civilian was wounded, the U.S. military said.
Two U.S. Apache helicopters circled over the area.
Insurgents regularly fire mortars at the zone, which also houses the interim government and the U.S. embassy.
When 1,300 delegates from across Iraq met to select the assembly last month, insurgents fired mortars at the meeting venue, killing two civilians nearby.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is struggling to push the country’s fledgling political process forward while insurgents use everything from suicide bombers to mortars to undermine his efforts.
Security was the theme of his speech to the assembly.
“Abiding by the law and protecting society is the main outlook in our security policy,” Allawi said in a speech read on his behalf. His whereabouts were unclear.
Kidnappings have also destabilized Iraq, scaring away foreign investors who are badly needed to rescue the cash-starved economy.
A militant Iraqi group said in an Internet statement posted on Tuesday that it had killed 12 Nepali hostages and showed pictures of one being beheaded and others being shot dead. It was the worst mass killing of captives since the start of a wave of kidnappings in April.
France is anxiously awaiting word on the fate of two French reporters held hostage in Iraq after a deadline for Paris to scrap a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools apparently passed without incident.
French President Jacques Chirac again rejected the demands by militants holding Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot that the law be revoked, as Foreign Minister Michel Barnier drummed up a chorus of Arab support for France’s position.
Tension rose as the reported deadline neared on Tuesday night, but was replaced by confusion after an Arab League official said he believed it had been extended to Wednesday night, rather than Tuesday night as previously reported.
That theory appeared to be strengthened by the absence of a new message from the kidnappers on Tuesday night.
Chesnot is a reporter for Radio France Internationale and Malbrunot writes for the dailies Le Figaro and Ouest France.
As intense efforts were under way to win their release, militants holding a Turkish truck driver hostage since Aug. 7 released a video announcing plans to free him after his Turkish firm supplying the U.S. military halted work in Iraq.
“Because of the response from the Turkish … company to our demands, … we have decided to release the Turkish hostage,” said a statement read out by a militant wearing a red headdress.
The hostage, Tahsin Top Abdul-Rahman, kissed the Koran before the militants gave him an Islamic banner.
Signs of hope were soon followed by more violence.
Leading politician Chalabi appeared unruffled by the attack.
“It was an ambush. I don’t think there is anything further to say. These things are part of the job,” Chalabi told Reuters.
Chalabi, a former Pentagon ally whose ties with Washington soured, has escaped several attempts on his life during four decades in exile, aides said.
A U.S.-appointed Iraqi judge has accused Chalabi of counterfeiting. He denied the charges and said they were politically motivated.