Iraqi Shiites eye new majority as results come in

BAGHDAD (AP) — About 24 top former officials in Saddam Hussein’s government — including a biological weapons expert known as “Dr Germ” — have been released from jail, a legal official in Baghdad said on Monday. Partial results from last week’s parliamentary elections showed Shiite and Kurdish parties dominating in provinces where they are the predominant group.

Demonstrations, meanwhile, broke out across Iraq on Monday in protest of the government’s decision to raise the price of gasoline, heating and cooking fuel anywhere from five- to nine-fold. A litre of gasoline in Iraq still costs only 17 cents or less, but Iraqis were upset by the relative size of the price hike. Iraq’s oil minister threatened to resign over the development.

An Iraqi lawyer said Monday that 24 or 25 top former officials in Saddam’s government have been released from jail, and some have already left the country.

“The release was an American-Iraqi decision and in line with an Iraqi government ruling made in December 2004, but it hasn’t been enforced until after the elections in an attempt to ease the political pressure in Iraq,” said Badee Izzat Aref.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, would say only that eight individuals formerly designated as high value detainees had been released Saturday after a board process found they were no longer a security threat and no charges would be filed against them.

Neither the US military nor Iraqi officials would disclose any of the names, but a legal official in Baghdad said Rihab Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash were among those released.

Taha, a British-educated biological weapons expert, was known as “Dr Germ” for her role in making bio-weapons in the 1980s. Ammash, “Mrs Anthrax,” a former top Baath Party official, was a biotech researcher.

The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said those released also included Hossam Mohammed Amin, head of the weapons inspections directorate, Aseel Tabra, an Iraqi Olympic Committee official under Uday, the former leader’s son.

In Baghdad province, results from 89 per cent of the ballot boxes showed the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, a collection of religious parties, ahead with 58 per cent of the vote or 1,403,901 votes.

Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front had 451,782 votes, and former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List ticket had 327,174 votes. No per centages were given for those parties.

Results from southern Basra province, which is predominantly Shiite, saw the clergy-backed alliance significantly ahead with 98 per cent of ballot boxes counted. Kurdish parties were overwhelmingly ahead in their three northern provinces.

The election commission did not release any results from provinces where Sunni Arabs are the majority.

The commission did not say how many people voted overall or provide further details.

Meanwhile, a suicide car bomb exploded outside a children’s hospital in western Baghdad on Monday, killing at least two people and wounding 11, including seven policemen, officials said. Police believe the bomb had been targeting a passing convoy carrying a police colonel, who was among the injured.

In western Baghdad, gunmen attacked the convoy of the city’s Deputy Gov. Ziad Tariq, killing three civilians and wounding three of Tariq’s bodyguards, Baghdad police said.

Tariq was not injured.

An extremist group, the Islamic Army of Iraq, posted a video on a website Monday that showed an unidentified man being shot in the back of the head, and the group claimed the killing was of American adviser Ronald Allen Schulz — a native of North Dakota who moved to Alaska six years ago.

The video did not show the face of the victim, however, and it was impossible to identify him conclusively.

The group first claimed to have killed Schulz in an Internet posting last week. It had said then that it would show the killing.

Fuel prices were raised on Sunday to curb a growing black market, oil ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said.

The price of a litre of imported and super gasoline was raised to $17 cents, but that represents a five-fold increase from previous prices. The price of locally produced gasoline was raised about seven-fold to about $12 cents per litre.

In Amarah, 290 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, police fired into the air to disperse the hundreds of protesters who had gathered in front of the provincial government headquarters. The demonstrators, however, didn’t leave, and scuffles broke out with police.

Drivers blocked roads and set tyres on fire near fuel stations in the southern city of Basra, and hundreds demonstrated outside the governor’s headquarters.

Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr Uloum said when the Cabinet increased prices, it also decided that the extra money would be used to support more than two million low-income families so they wouldn’t be burdened by the increases.

Some aid money was supposed to reach the families before the price hikes, but that didn’t happen, he said.

“Dr Ibrahim will submit his resignation to the Iraqi government if the situation continues as is,” he said, referring to himself. “We should take in consideration the living conditions and the economic situation of the citizens.” Iraq’s oil minister has previously said that cheap domestic fuel prices had encouraged smuggling to other countries. Iraq’s government has continued the practice of Saddam of heavily subsidising fuel prices.

A US Marine was killed in fighting Sunday in Ramadi in central Iraq, the military said Monday.

Iraqi soldiers on Monday began Operation Moonlight, which the US military described as the first large-scale operation planned and executed by soldiers of the Iraqi 1st Brigade. The mission’s aim is to disrupt insurgent activity along the Euphrates River near the border with Syria.

There are five Iraqi army companies and one US Marine company taking part in the operation, said Marine Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool.

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