Gunmen murder dean of economics school at Baghdad University; U.S. military identifies missing soldier

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Gunmen killed the Shiite dean of Baghdad University's school of administration and economics on Thursday _ the 155th Iraqi academic murdered in sectarian violence and revenge attacks since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

In another attack against majority Shiites, a motorcycle bomb struck a crowded market in Sadr City, killing seven people and wounding 45, police said, just two days after the U.S. lifted a military blockade of the Baghdad district on the orders of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The rigged motorcycle was left in a section of the Mereidi market that specialized in the sales of secondhand motorbikes and spare parts. The attack raised the total number of people killed or found dead around Iraq on Thursday to 49.

Sadr City is a stronghold of the militia, which is loyal to radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Associated Press Television News footage showed mangled motorbikes and large pools of blood on the ground.

Mahdi Army militiamen came to the scene of the bombing and dispersed a crowd of onlookers for fear of a second blast targeting rescuers and police as has repeatedly been the case in past bombings.

The U.S. military also confirmed Thursday that a kidnapped soldier was an Iraq-American man who was married to an Iraqi woman. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell identified him as Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reserve soldier.

The military spokesman said there was ``an ongoing dialogue'' in a bid to win the soldier's release, but he would not say with whom or at what level.

Two Iraqi lawmakers, meanwhile, said al-Maliki plans to reshuffle his 39-member Cabinet, possibly this month, in a bid to salvage his government's faltering image as it faces criticism that it has been ineffective amid the spiraling sectarian violence.

``The prime minister is considering a reshuffle within the next few weeks,'' Ali al-Adeeb, a lawmaker of al-Maliki's Dawa Party and a close aide to the prime minister, told The Associated Press. ``It will cover about a third of the serving ministers, including one with a security brief.''

Hassan al-Suneid, another Dawa lawmaker and a close al-Maliki aide, also said he expected the reshuffle to take place within a month. ``It will take place after consultations with the political blocs in parliament,'' he said.

The statements coincided with sharp criticism of al-Maliki's 5-month-old government for its perceived failure to make progress toward crushing the Sunni-led insurgency and disband Shiite militias blamed for much of the violence. Al-Maliki also is under fire for doing too little to improve services and create jobs.

The government's main backer, the United States, has added to the pressure, presenting al-Maliki last week with a timeline to end the violence and achieve reconciliation between the country's various religious and ethnic groups.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Thursday his country could send U.S.-led troops home in two to three years, once Iraq has set up its own domestic security forces.

``Two to three years are needed to build our security forces and say bye-bye to our friends,'' Talabani said in English at a conference during a visit to Paris.

That contrasted with an estimate late last month by Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, that it will take to get the Iraqis fully in control of their own security.

The Shiite university dean, Jassim al-Asadi, was driving home after picking up his son from school and his wife from her teaching job, when a group of armed men pulled alongside, spraying his car with bullets, police Lt. Ahmed Ibrahim said. Al-Asadi's wife and son also were killed in the attack, Ibrahim said.

Iraqi academics, along with doctors and other professionals, have become the frequent targets of threats, kidnapping and murder, with at least 155 killed since April 9, 2003, when Saddam Hussein was ousted, according to Education Ministry statistics.

Thousands of others have fled the country, starving Iraq's education, legal and health care systems of much needed expertise and deepening a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

The shooting came after Monday's killing of a prominent Sunni academic following a pattern of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

In all, more than 1,200 Iraqis have died from violence in October, the highest level since The Associated Press began tracking civilian deaths in April 2005. That count most likely underestimates the true figure because many deaths go unreported. Since this summer, the United Nations has put the monthly death toll at more than 3,000.

Casualties have been especially heavy among the security forces, with at least 119 Iraqi police officers killed and 185 wounded last month, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media. Iraq's government recently tightened control of the release of such death tolls, making the issue sensitive for officials to discuss.

At a news briefing Thursday, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry which commands the police force, Abdel-Karim Khalaf, gave no figures for the entire month. But he said 90 officers had been killed and 160 wounded amid heavy fighting between Oct. 26 and Nov. 1 _ an average of 15 per day.

The Iraqi police death toll for October follows an announcement by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, that the Iraqi army lost 300 men during the last three weeks of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began at the end of September and ended early last week.

According to an Associated Press count, at least 194 Iraqi security forces, including at least 149 police, were killed during October.

The U.S. death toll also rose with the announcement that a Baghdad-based soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday west of the capital, the first U.S. casualty in November. October was the fourth deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war started _ with the deaths of 105 service members.

Offering a piece of good news, Caldwell, the chief military spokesman, said sectarian killing in Baghdad dropped by 41 percent last week during the U.S. imposition of blockades on two Baghdad neighborhoods in the search for the soldier. He also credited the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.