The attacks appear to be an effort to divide Shiites and Sunnis before the Jan. 30 vote.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen killed an aide to Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, intensifying the threat of a violent sectarian split with the approach of national elections that political leaders are struggling to salvage.
Sheik Mahmoud Madaeni was walking back from evening prayers Wednesday night near his home 12 miles southeast of Baghdad when the gunmen opened fire, according to his colleagues. The fusillade killed him, his son and four men identified as bodyguards.
Madaeni was a local representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, who supports the planned Jan. 30 National Assembly elections. Sistani's office confirmed the killing but said little about it Thursday.
Madaeni's killing was the latest in a series of attacks on Shiite and Sunni clerics that appear to be intended to set the two branches of Islam against each other and could disrupt the balloting.
Sistani, as spiritual guide of much of Iraq's Shiite majority, has been an ardent supporter of the elections and has urged that they be held on schedule. But Iraqi Sunnis, many of whose leaders are wary of seeing the long-repressed Shiites take political power, have pressed for a delay because continuing violence in Sunni-populated areas will likely keep voters away from the polls and further increase the Shiites' electoral gains.
A senior British official in Iraq played down the gravity of a possibly lopsided vote. The official, who spoke to reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity, suggested that Iraqi leaders would form a balanced government even if few Sunni candidates were elected.
"What the moderate Shia are saying ... is there will be places in the government for Sunnis" even if they are not elected to the assembly, the official said. "People don't want to get hung up on how much of the Sunni population voted."
His comments, made one day after a White House pronouncement minimizing the significance of a low turnout, added to arguments by U.S., Iraqi and British officials that the election results should be considered legitimate even if large segments of the population do not go to the polls.
"Are we going to say that because intimidation prevents much of the Sunni from voting that the election is invalid? No. We might say the Sunnis are underrepresented, and how can we correct that?" the official said.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, echoing the White House, has insisted the vote will not be delayed. In Paris on Thursday, Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar repeated that vow.
Election delay sought
Some Iraqi political leaders, however, are intensifying efforts to win a postponement. Hassib Obaidi and Abdul Rahman Asi, two local leaders from Kirkuk, said they were organizing a convention of political parties to try to push back the balloting date.
The impending vote "is dividing Iraq," Obaidi said in an interview Thursday. "If the elections are held, I think Iraq will approach civil war." Sectarian and political militias will begin fighting, he said, and "hundreds of bin Ladens will be created."
The largest party representing Sunnis, called the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced late last month that it was withdrawing from the elections because of the refusal to postpone it. Ammar Wajeeh, a director of the party, said Thursday that the party now had "very little hope" of a delay.
But the head of the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission said in an interview that the Iraqi Islamic Party's 275 candidates still would be listed on ballots and that the party would be offered any seats that it won.
"Whether they decide to take those seats is up to them," said Adil Lami, general manager of the commission.
"If they get a respectable number of seats, they may find it hard not to take them," said the British official.
The violence that has marked the run-up to the elections continued Thursday. In addition to the slaying of Sistani's aide, gunmen kidnapped a Turkish contractor and killed six Iraqi workers in front of the Bakhan Hotel in central Baghdad Thursday. The businessman, Abdulkadir Tanrikulu, constructs concrete barriers for Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Insurgents have often targeted people who work with Americans, but it was not known if the attack on Tanrikulu was motivated by politics or a dispute over money.
"He is the only foreigner in this hotel. We used to see him when he comes back to the hotel," said Mohammed Jasim, a grocer whose store is beside the hotel. "He usually goes to work without a bodyguard."
Alaa Mohammed, the hotel receptionist, said employees had noticed two cars waiting outside at 6:30 a.m.
"Our guards went to ask them why are they here. They claimed that one of the cars was broken down and they were trying to fix it," Mohammed said.
But when a minivan with Tanrikulu's workers arrived to pick him up, 10 gunmen emerged from the cars and ordered the hotel guards inside. They killed five Iraqi laborers and the van driver and kidnapped the Turk, driving away in the van, said the clerk.