Gunmen in Iraq kill top Shiite cleric's aide
Second aide slain this week; police say 9 die in separate attack
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- An aide to Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric was shot to death Thursday in Baghdad, police said, the second of his aides killed this week.
The attack was part of an upsurge in violence since the largely Shiite transitional government came to power.
Many of the targets have been Shiites and Kurds. Authorities believe the insurgents are mainly Sunni Arabs.
Sayid Mohammed al-Allaf, an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was shot to death in Sadr City, a largely Shiite neighborhood of northeast Baghdad, Iraqi police said.
The other al-Sistani aide shot this week was Sheikh Qasim al-Ghiri. He and his nephew were killed in a drive-by shooting early Sunday in eastern Baghdad, where there is a large Shiite presence.
Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who held meetings earlier this week with Iraqi government officials, traveled Thursday to Najaf to meet with al-Sistani, who was born in Iran.
Al-Allaf's assassination followed Wednesday's call by the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party to close Sunni mosques from Saturday dawn prayers until Tuesday dawn prayers to protest the treatment of Sunnis.
According to the GlobalSecurity.org Web site, the association was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his largely Sunni government. It is the highest Sunni authority in Iraq.
The association's statement says the Shiite-dominated transitional government disregards the Sunni community's rights and has violated "mosques, [the] holy Quran and private homes; in addition to the arrest, torture and assassination of scholars and thousands of youth and worshippers without proper trial, along with a deliberate marring of the reputation of Sunnis through official and non-official media."
The statement demands the end of the alleged government practices, threatening a "stricter" response if it does not.
On Monday, Iraq Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi ordered the Iraqi army to stop raids on mosques and churches.
"We have ordered a ministerial order to all units," said al-Dulaimi, who expressed concern about harming civilians.
Insurgents have used mosques to stage attacks and to hide guns and explosives.
Sunnis constitute a small portion of the 275-member transitional National Assembly. Many Sunnis stayed away from the January 30 elections that chose representatives to the assembly.
One of the Sunni Arab lawmakers escaped an assassination attempt Thursday in which nine others died, police said. The U.S. military said eight people were killed in violence surrounding the incident.
Gunmen fired at the car of Sheikh Fawaz al-Jarba as it approached his house in the northern city of Mosul. Al-Jarba's driver was killed, but his bodyguards shot dead one of the attackers.
Mosul police said later they recovered seven other bodies, identifying them as family and personnel.
Insurgents "began firing at a helicopter that had been called to investigate. The helicopter returned fire, injuring three," a coalition news release said.
Also Thursday, an official from Iraq's Oil Ministry, Ali Maneed, and a professor at Baghdad University, Dr. Qasim Mohammed Al-Umari, were gunned down in a separate incidents in Baghdad, police said.
Al-Umari was the son of an ex-Sunni imam of a mosque in the eastern neighborhood of Ur.
On Wednesday, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars made fiery accusations against Shiites, directing his ire at a group that once was a militia for a powerful Shiite organization.
Harith al-Dhari criticized the Badr Organization, once known as the Badr Brigade, the group that was formerly the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose party has members in the government.
Last week, the Interior Ministry announced that the Badr Organization helped authorities arrest a handful of people in connection with a Baghdad attack.
Sunnis are concerned that the Shiite government is allowing groups like the Badr Organization to behave like militias. Al-Dhari makes a reference to the arrests in a statement, referring to four Palestinians who were seized.
"We knew the sides that stand behind the assassinations of imams, sheikhs, and prayers. They are the same sides that cordoned off the camp of our Palestinian brothers in al-Baladiat area to take them out of the country. They are the Badr militant group," al-Dhari said.
"All the world should know that we are heading toward a catastrophe, only God knows when it ends. This is our warning."
Other developmentsA roadside bomb struck a convoy and killed an American soldier Thursday morning in southeast Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Later in the day, two U.S. soldiers died when their convoy was fired on from another vehicle in central Baghdad, the military said. The three soldiers were members of Task Force Baghdad, whose chief component is the 3rd Infantry Division.The Marine Corps said a soldier assigned to the Marines was killed Wednesday in an attack that targeted a U.S. base in Ramadi.The number of U.S. military deaths in the war now totals 1,629. The U.S. Army has scheduled another hearing for May 24 for Pfc. Lynndie England, the first step in restarting the process in her court-martial. A military judge declared a mistrial in the England case May 4 and threw out her guilty plea in connection with her role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. She is charged with seven criminal counts: two of conspiracy, four of abusing detainees and one of committing an indecent act. (Full story)U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick arrived in Baghdad Thursday for meetings with top Iraqi officials, U.S. officials said. His first meeting was with Hachem al-Hassani, speaker of the Iraq's transitional National Assembly. Zoellick was scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, U.S. Embassy officials said, as well as other U.S. and Iraqi officials. The House Armed Services Committee approved a measure barring women in the U.S. military from roles in direct ground combat. (Full story)A suicide car bomb killed an Iraqi army soldier and wounded nine others, including one civilian, in southern Baghdad on Thursday, police said. The bomb exploded at an Iraqi army checkpoint in the southern Baghdad outskirts of Hor Rijab, police said. In Baquba, two Iraqi police officers were killed Thursday and two other people were wounded when a roadside bomb detonated near a police convoy in front of the Diyala University Medicine School, police said.
CNN's Enes Dulami and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.