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Iraqi Sunni Leader Escapes Assassination Attempt

A prominent Iraqi leader, who heads a Sunni political group with members on the constitutional drafting committee, says he escaped an assassination attempt early Saturday by unknown gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms.

The head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, Sheikh Khalaf al-Ilayan, says he was in a convoy on a Baghdad highway Saturday morning, when gunmen drove up alongside the vehicle he was in and opened fire. Sheikh Ilayan says he was on his way to work when the assailants, dressed in Iraqi army uniforms, sprayed bullets into his car and wounded his bodyguard. He says the gunmen sped away when the chase car, following the politician's vehicle, tried to move up to act as a shield.

The Sunni politician declined to say who may have staged the attack. But he says the incident took place less than 100 meters away from an Iraqi army checkpoint, and the soldiers there did not do anything to help him. "Why were the gunmen dressed in military uniforms, and why didn't the Iraqi army men at the checkpoint try to stop these men?" Mr. Ilayan asked.

The incident follows the murders of two members of Mr. Ilayan's political group in downtown Baghdad two weeks ago. Both men had been working with the Iraqi committee drafting the country's constitution, and their deaths prompted a six-day walkout by their Sunni colleagues on the committee. The Sunni members returned to work only after Iraqi government leaders promised that they would be given, among other things, better protection.

Earlier this week, the terror group al-Qaida in Iraq warned that Sunni Arabs participating in Iraq's U.S.-backed political process would be targeted for violence.

But Sunnis, who largely boycotted January elections and lost power to the country's Shi'ite and Kurdish Muslims, remain deeply suspicious of the interim government because it is made up mostly of political leaders who were persecuted under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Sunni Arabs say the government has been sanctioning Shi'ite militia attacks on Sunni clerics and arresting and torturing Sunnis without justification. Shi'ite government leaders deny the charges.

Sectarian tension rose further Saturday after the Iraqi government confirmed that it has fired a top Sunni government official. Adnan al-Dulaimi was the head of the Sunni endowment, a government agency in charge of maintaining Sunni mosques and shrines. Mr. Dulaimi has also been one of the leading voices in calling for massive Sunni Arab participation in elections scheduled for December.

Government officials have not said why Mr. Dulaimi was dismissed. But the Sunni politician says he believes the government is retaliating for his outspoken criticisms about the way it has been treating the Sunni people.

It is not yet clear to what extent Mr. Dulaimi's dismissal will affect efforts to draw disaffected Sunnis into Iraq's political process. Sunni participation is seen as key for legitimizing any permanent Iraqi government.

Meanwhile, Iraqi police say 44 people are now confirmed dead in Friday's suicide attack in a town near the Syrian border. [Later press reports put the number at 50.]

At least 19 people died overnight from wounds sustained when a suicide bomber blew himself up amid a crowd of Iraqi army recruits. Al-Qaida in Iraq later claimed responsibility for the attack.