A crowd of angry men, some wielding knives, others throwing shoes or bricks, attacked an entourage led by former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf on Sunday, as gunfire echoed in the area. Allawi later described the melee as an "assassination attempt."
Allawi was not hurt, according to Abdulal Wahid Esawi, secretary general of Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party.
A convoy of cars with tinted windows had carried Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads a slate of parties running in the Dec. 15 legislative elections, to Najaf's Imam Ali shrine in the course of a series of campaign stops in the southern city. Dozens of people chanting, "God cursed the Baathists!" descended soon after he left his vehicle, witnesses said.
"After the prayers, a group of about 60 people dressed in black and carrying daggers and pistols started chants against us," Allawi told reporters. "We have seven bullet shells from the incident. One of them lost his gun when he tried to shoot me. We believe that these are hurtful rebels. This will increase our insistence to cleanse the country of them. We warn them that after the elections, we, the people in power, will pursue them toughly."
A onetime ally of ousted president Saddam Hussein, Allawi quit Hussein's Baath Party in the mid-1970s, joining the Iraqi opposition and eventually developing a close relationship with the CIA. But during his tenure as prime minister, he drew criticism from other former opposition leaders for adopting what they considered a conciliatory stance toward ex-Baathists.
Allawi also earned a reputation as a hard-liner on security issues, sending Iraqi forces to support U.S. troops in several battles, including clashes in Najaf with followers of Moqtada Sadr, the outspoken Shiite cleric whose office is near the Imam Ali shrine. Sadr supporters had gathered in Najaf on Sunday to memorialize Sadr's father, a revered cleric who was slain in 1999.
When the crowd turned belligerent, "Allawi's guards started shooting in the air to push people away," said Bahjat Bahashi, 32, who owns a fabric shop next to the shrine. "The police and army were in the area but did not get involved." Bahashi said the guards then put Allawi back in the car, and the convoy left.
The governor of Najaf province, Asaad Abu Gelal, told reporters that Allawi had flown to Najaf with the U.S. military and had not sought official protection. "He entered the city with his own convoy and security," Gelal said.
Allawi, who retains close ties to the U.S. government, is considered a main rival of the Shiite religious coalition that governs Iraq and that is heavily favored in the Dec. 15 elections.
A member of the National Assembly, Allawi angered some members of the government last week by appearing at a state-sponsored military rally in Baghdad and giving a speech outlining his goals for the country. He said Iraq should disarm the country's militias, some of which are linked to the government and are frequently accused of political violence, despite a ban on their operations.
The run-up to the elections to determine Iraq's first full-term government since the 2003 invasion has been marred by attacks on candidates and party workers. Earlier Sunday, Abdul Salam Bahadli, a National Assembly candidate aligned with Sadr, was found shot dead in Baghdad, according to Mustafa Yaqoubi, a Sadr aide.
Two U.S soldiers were killed Sunday when their convoy was attacked in a roadside bombing in a southeastern suburb of Baghdad, the U.S. military said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Also Sunday, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, announced that security forces had thwarted a planned rocket attack on the building housing the courtroom where Hussein and seven co-defendants are being tried. A government statement said an insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades had intended to attack the proceedings, which after a week-long recess are set to resume Monday inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
Hussein's lawyers expected to meet with their client Sunday to discuss strategy for the trial, former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who is advising Hussein's defense team, told the Associated Press in Amman, Jordan, before departing for Baghdad on Sunday morning.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.