BAGHDAD, Iraq – Gunmen killed a deputy foreign minister as he went to work Saturday, the latest attack on Iraqi leaders in recent weeks. A radical cleric whose uprising killed hundreds pledged to support the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence.
Bassam Salih Kubba (search), Iraq's most senior career diplomat, was mortally wounded in Baghdad's Azimiyah district, Foreign Ministry spokesman Thamir al-Adhami said. The attack took place in a Sunni Muslim (search) neighborhood where support for Saddam Hussein (search) was strong.
The attack "bears all the hallmarks of leftover supporters of Saddam Hussein's evil regime," the ministry said in a statement.
The attack on Kubba, a Sunni, was the second assassination of a senior Iraqi figure in the past month. The head of the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, Izzadine Saleem (search), was killed in a suicide car-bombing May 17 at an entrance to the heavily guarded Green Zone headquarters of the U.S.-run occupation authority.
Another Governing Council member, Salama al-Khafaji (search), escaped injury in a May 27 ambush south of Baghdad but her son and chief bodyguard were killed. Council member Aquila al-Hashemi, also a career diplomat, was assassinated last September.
Despite the violence, the government received an endorsement Friday from an unlikely source — radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search). In a sermon read to his followers by an aide, al-Sadr said he was ready for a dialogue with the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence.
"I support the new interim government," al-Sadr said. "Starting now, I ask you that we open a new page for Iraq and for peace."
In Baghdad, U.S. officials said they were encouraged by the remarks from al-Sadr but noted he has made contradictory statements on the issue in recent weeks.
U.S. officials have warned of a major surge of violence in the run-up to the June 30 transfer of power to the interim government.
Although those predictions have so far not panned out, attacks on infrastructure and security installations suggest a campaign to undermine public confidence in the new Iraqi leadership.
U.S. military officials hope to transfer more security responsibility to the Iraqis after June 30, but a senior U.S. official said there would be no speedy U.S. departure from Baghdad and other cities after the restoration of sovereignty.
"I don't think you're going to see much difference on July 15 than you saw on January 15," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, told reporters.
"We will not be pulling out of the cities," Kimmitt added. "We will not be relocating. We certainly would like to see more and more Iraqi security forces at the lead."
In Beirut, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry official said Saturday that three Lebanese had been kidnapped in Iraq and one of them was tortured and killed in "grisly circumstances." One was freed and the other is still missing.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hussein Ali Alyan, a Lebanese Shiite who worked in construction, was killed by his captors for "financial reasons" and his body was dumped on a road near Baghdad.
Elsewhere, seven kidnapped Turkish contractors who were working for a Turkish construction company in Iraq were freed in Fallujah and were en route to Mosul, according to an official of their employer.
On Friday, gunmen blew up a police station in Yusufiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad, after driving off outgunned policemen in a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. It was the fourth such attack on a police station in the past week.
Elsewhere, the U.S. military said it was investigating the May 17 fatal shooting of an Iraqi man by an American soldier in Baghdad. A statement said the Iraqi was an "anti-Iraqi forces operative" who bragged that he had killed a 1st Cavalry Division soldier.
During a raid to apprehend him, the Iraqi tried to grab the weapon of a U.S. soldier "who shot and killed the subject," the command said.
Last week, the command said it was investigating a May incident in Kufa in which an Iraqi was shot dead at close range by an American following a shooting at a checkpoint.
Kubba and his driver were headed for his office when gunmen drove up behind him and opened fire, according to the foreign ministry spokesman. The assailants then passed the stricken vehicle and fired a second burst, the spokesman said.
Kubba's driver escaped injury but the deputy minister died later in hospital, the spokesman said.
Kubba, 60, who held a Master's degree in international relations from St. John's University in New York, was one of several deputy foreign ministers. He had served as acting chief of the Iraqi mission to the United Nations in New York and as Iraq's ambassador to China. Kubba also served on the committee that ran the ministry after the fall of Saddam's regime.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw deplored Kubba's assassination as "a shocking crime" and described the deputy minister as "a force for good in Iraq."
Also Saturday, one Iraqi civilian was killed and four others were injured when they were caught in crossfire between U.S. soldiers and unknown attackers in the Khan Dhari area about 12 miles west of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Al-Sadr is under strong pressure from the mainstream Shiite clerical hierarchy to soften his stand against the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
At the same time, he wants to maintain his reputation as one of the few Iraqi leaders who stood up publicly to the Americans.
In an interview Friday night with Al-Arabiya television, al-Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed al-Shibani, said the cleric was ready for a dialogue with the government "on condition that it works to end the occupation and clearly announces to the Iraqi people and to the world that it rejects the occupation."
"It has to put a timetable for the end of the occupation," al-Shibani said. "This is the main and principled way to recognize this government and cooperate with it."
The U.S.-led occupation formally ends June 30 with the transfer of sovereignty to Allawi's government, and the U.N. resolution approved Tuesday by the Security Council sets a deadline of 2006 for ending the multinational military presence.