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2 top Iraqi officials are slain in Baghdad

SHARE 2 top Iraqi officials are slain in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Gunmen today killed the cultural affairs officer for Iraq's Education Ministry, Kamal al-Jarah, one day after the country's most senior career diplomat, Bassam Salih Kubba, was also murdered, authorities said.

These were the first assassinations of top Iraqi officials since the new interim government took office just under two weeks ago.

Attackers ambushed al-Jarah outside his home as he was leaving for work about 7:30 a.m. today. The attack took place in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya, a predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhood where support for Saddam Hussein's regime had been strong. Al-Jarah died of his wounds at the Yarmouk Hospital, said Abdul Khaliq al-Amri, a ministry official.

U.S. convoys have often come under attack in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood.

Earlier, gunmen killed Kubba as he was being driven to work Saturday morning. He had just left his home in the Adhamiya suburb north of Baghdad when gunmen in a black sedan fired at his car, striking Kubba fatally and injuring his driver, relatives said. Kubba died as his driver sped to the hospital in the unarmored white Mercedes, its back windows shattered by bullets.

Kubba, 60, was appointed as a deputy foreign minister two months ago but had worked at the ministry since 1968. He served as former president Saddam Hussein's ambassador to China and was chief of Iraq's mission to the United Nations. He was on the committee that ran the Foreign Ministry after Saddam's overthrow last year.

High-profile Iraqi officials associated with the U.S.-led occupation authority and the transitional government have been targeted repeatedly by insurgents in the weeks leading up to the June 30 transfer of power.

The head of the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, Izzedin Salim, was killed in a suicide car bombing May 17 at an entrance to the heavily guarded headquarters of the occupation. Two days later, a car bomb exploded outside the home of Abdul-Jabbar Youssef Sheikhli, a deputy minister in Iraq's Interior Ministry, wounding him and his wife and killing five civilians.

On Wednesday, Deputy Health Minister Ammar Safar escaped an assassination attempt in the same Sunni Muslim area of Baghdad where Kubba was gunned down. Safar was also on his way to work when he was attacked. His guards exchanged fire with the attackers, who then fled.

A statement from Iraq's Foreign Ministry blamed the assassination of Kubba, a Shiite Muslim, on "leftover supporters of Saddam Hussein."

"We are saddened to lose such a close friend and a highly capable diplomat who has been helping our efforts to rebuild the Foreign Ministry," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zubari. "We will not be scared or intimidated by Saddamists to continue our work to consolidate the reintegration of Iraq as a peaceful and responsible member of the international community."

Another Iraqi career diplomat, Akila Hashimi, was killed in September in an ambush near her Baghdad home. Hashimi also was a Shiite.

Meanwhile, in Najaf, Adnan Zurufi, the governor of the southern city, told a reporter on Saturday that U.S.-supported Iraqi security forces would continue to deal on their own with the militia of defiant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which has been battling U.S. troops on and off for weeks.

Zurufi said he sent a letter to al-Sadr asking him to withdraw his Mahdi Army militia as soon as possible from the holy city. He said he has supplied the local Iraqi police with weaponry, including sniper rifles and rocket launchers, to use against the militia, which violated a five-day old truce on Thursday. "Any side that does not abide by the maintenance of security, we shall deal with severely," Zurufi said at a press conference.

During prayer services on Friday, an aide to al-Sadr told worshipers that the cleric would support the new interim government in Iraq but only if U.S. and other occupation forces set a timetable for leaving the country. The conciliatory gesture was part of a continuing trading of statements between Sadr, the Shiite caucus in the interim government and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most respected and influential Shiite cleric.

In Baghdad on Saturday, relatives and neighbors mourned Kubba, a well-traveled man with a degree in international relations from St. John's University in New York.

The neighbors and relatives said Kubba shunned the bodyguards and extra security that many officials use, preferring to live as normal a life as he could. They said he walked to local shops many afternoons with his wife to buy groceries. She had been on a trip to London to visit their son and learned the news from television in Jordan, where she was on her way back to Baghdad on Saturday.

Neighbors said Kubba had sat outside with them just a day ago, exchanging news and simply enjoying the day off. "He never bothered or hurt or insulted anybody," said a neighbor who gave his name only as Ghassan. "He was very simple, and he refused to have guards and weapons."

He said Kubba told his neighbors that he did not feel unsafe. "He said he'd never bothered anybody, so nobody would be going after him," Ghassan said.

Mohammad Ibraheem, who sells satellite dishes and electronic goods at a shop near where Kubba lived, expressed shock when told of the assassination. "Bassam? Don't tell me that," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "He was a very nice guy, very simple. All the people liked him. I hope he did not die. I hope it's a lie."

Ibraheem said that after Kubba became deputy minister, his friends tried to persuade him to hire bodyguards. "We told him many times that he should have guards when he walks around," said Ibraheem. "We told him that he was an ambassador and a deputy minister. He refused. He asked why he should get guards and bring attention to his house."

Contributing: Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf