By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 17 -- The Iraqi government said Tuesday that it would push for new laws to punish people who provide logistical support for networks of insurgents, aiming to toughen its stance after a surge of violence that has claimed 450 Iraqi lives in two weeks.
The new laws would also make it a crime not to share information about insurgent networks with the government.
"People who keep information from the authorities, who give material support or cooperate with terrorists, they will be held accountable," said Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, adding that punishments would include detention, longer-term imprisonment and the seizure of private assets.
"If people know there will be legal consequences, they will stop. We must take the terrorists' cover away so that no one will work with them anymore," he said. Kubba said details of the new measures -- augmenting emergency powers the government has wielded since November -- would be unveiled in the next few weeks.
U.S. military commanders here have encouraged the government to take bolder action in confronting insurgents as a spate of violence has continued across the country. Execution-style killings targeting groups of Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs, as well as the assassination of religious leaders from both branches of Islam, have heightened concern about an emerging sectarian conflict.
Asked for examples of those who might be targeted by the Shiite-led government's new measures, Kubba suggested people who knowingly rent property to insurgents, or "petty criminals" who help fund insurgent operations through robberies.
He said such policies were in the same vein as security measures implemented in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and steps taken by Britain during the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
"It is the duty of any state that faces such a challenge to confront such dangers," he said.
At least three more religious leaders -- one Shiite and two from the country's Sunni minority -- were slain or found dead Tuesday in Baghdad.
In the Shaab neighborhood, where more than a dozen corpses were found Monday, the bullet-riddled bodies of two Sunni clerics were discovered, according to Hamed Khazraji, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni religious group.
In response, the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement saying that the government is either "colluding or unable to achieve security" and that "this situation will not leave groups or individuals a choice except to pick up arms in self-defense."
The party also accused Interior Ministry commandos of torturing and killing captives and warned of "a dangerous crisis" unless "quick, speedy measures are taken to circumvent this."
The Interior Ministry denied that its forces were involved in the Shaab killings. Kubba said the government believes a band of insurgents is using such killings to antagonize both Sunni and Shiite communities.
"The criminals who committed these crimes are the same ones who commit crimes against the Shiites. They want to kindle the fire of sectarian violence," Kubba said at his morning news media briefing.
The Shiite cleric slain Tuesday was the victim of gunmen.
The government has repeatedly pledged to step up efforts to stop the violence as U.S. officials have pushed for bolder, more public actions. On Tuesday evening, Iraqi television showed a group of eight alleged members of the Ansar al-Sunna Army, an insurgent group. Several confessed on camera to killing Iraqis who worked with occupation forces.
Elsewhere in Iraq, a roadside bombing killed one U.S. soldier near Tikrit, the military said in a statement. A former member of the Iraqi intelligence service was shot dead, along with his wife and three sons, near the village of Tunis, south of Baghdad. And two Iraqi soldiers and three police officers were killed in clashes with insurgents near a power plant in Musayyib, also south of the capital.
U.S. forces in Apache helicopters targeted insurgents near the northern city of Mosul. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gil Mendez, a spokesman, said the engagement was "not an operation, just a response to hostile fire" from insurgents.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Mohammed, the Mosul police chief, said dozens of armed men had entered the Mosul area after escaping from the region in western Iraq where U.S. forces searched for foreign fighters last week.
In Baghdad on Tuesday evening, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi became the first official from Iran to visit here since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The two neighboring countries fought a grinding war from 1980 to 1988 that killed an estimated 1 million people.
The Iranian government, which is run by Shiite clerics, has close ties to several of Iraq's Shiite leaders, including Jafari, who spent many years living in Iran after his Dawa party was banned by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1980.
During a visit to Iraq two days earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern about Iran's involvement in Iraq's internal affairs. Iraq's former interim government, led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, had accused Iran of allowing insurgent fighters to cross its border.
Kharrazi, at a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, said "such accusations are untrue and illogical."
Also Tuesday, in response to Rice's visit and her call for greater cooperation among Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis to undermine the insurgency, a statement signed by al Qaeda in Iraq, a militant group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, was posted on a radical Islamic Web site.
"The old hag wants the participation of the Sunni impostors," it said, referring to Rice. "You ought to know that our doctrine is killing you. Our path is fighting you."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti, Khalid Saffar and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.