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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The head of the Iraqi Governing Council was killed in a suicide car bombing near a checkpoint outside the coalition headquarters in central Baghdad on Monday, dealing a blow to U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq ahead of a handover of sovereignty on June 30.
A roadside bomb containing sarin nerve agent also exploded recently near a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt confirmed Monday, saying two explosives experts were treated for "minor exposure" but no other casualties were reported.
Kimmitt said he believed it was the first case in which U.S. forces had found an artillery shell containing sarin.
Abdel-Zahraa Othman, also known as Izzadine Saleem, was the second and highest-ranking member of the U.S.-appointed council to be assassinated. He was among nine Iraqis, including the bomber, who were killed, Iraqi officials said.
A suicide bomber was responsible, the military said.
A previously unknown group, the Arab Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying in a Web site posting that two of its fighters carried out the operation against "the traitor and mercenary" Saleem.
The car bomb had the "classic" hallmarks of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Kimmitt said, but he acknowledged that the claim of responsibility meant that U.S. authorities will have to investigate further before determing responsibility.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant with links to al-Qaida, is believed responsible for many of the vehicle bombs in recent months and for the death of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg, whose decapitation was videotaped and posted on the Web last week.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, called Saleem's killing a "shocking and tragic loss."
"The terrorists who are seeking to destroy Iraq have struck a cruel blow with this vile act today," he said. "But they will be defeated ... The Iraqi people will ensure that his vision of a democratic, free and prosperous Iraq will become a reality."
The council president's position rotates monthly. Saleem's death occurred about six weeks before the United States plans to transfer power to Iraqis and underscores the risks facing those perceived as owing their positions to the Americans.
The sarin explosion was confirmed by the Iraqi Survey Group, a U.S. organization whose task was to search for weapons of mass destruction after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in last year's invasion.
The sarin was inside an artillery shell that had been rigged as a bomb. It was discovered by a U.S. convoy and exploded before it could be defused.
The explosion released a very small amount of sarin, Kimmitt said. The incident occurred "a couple of days ago," he said.
Kimmitt said he believed that insurgents who rigged the artillery shell as a bomb didn't know it contained the nerve agent.
"The former regime had declared all such rounds destroyed before the 1991 Gulf War," Kimmitt said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Saleem's death should not deter the transfer of power.
"What this shows is that the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are trying to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power from the occupiers to the Iraqi people, and these terrorists are enemies of the Iraqi people themselves," Straw said in Brussels, Belgium, at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.
Saleem, the name he went by most frequently, was a Shiite who led the Islamic Dawa Movement in the southern city of Basra. He was a writer, philosopher and political activist, and edited several newspapers and magazines.
One Governing Council member, Salama al-Khafaji, said the bombing appeared to be an effort to foment sectarian divisions in Iraq and disrupt the transfer of political power.
Another member, Naseer Kamel al-Chaderchi, blamed the bombing on the same groups that have conducted other attacks, including the August bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The council selected Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim civil engineer from the northern city of Mosul, to replace Saleem. Al-Yawer will lead the council until June 30.
Al-Yawer said the council would continue "the march toward building a democratic, federal, plural and unified Iraq."
"God willing, the criminal forces will be defeated despite all the pain they are causing to our people and their heroic leaders," he said.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Southern Shuneh, Jordan, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the killing of Saleem shows that council members "are the prime targets of these terrorist attacks and those antidemocratic forces who want to deviate this process. And we will not be intimidated and we will continue the path of a new Iraq."
Council member Ahmad Chalabi said terrorists are using the insurgent Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, where U.S. Marines stopped patrols last month and allowed an Iraqi security force to oversee security, to prepare car bombs like the one that killed Saleem.
"The terrorists are free to roam around and they have been given sanctuary in Fallujah," Chalabi said. "The garage is open and car bombs are coming repeatedly."
Ammar al-Saffar, a Health Ministry official, said the victims included five people in Saleem's entourage and two members of the Iraqi security forces. Fourteen Iraqis and an Egyptian were injured, he said.
Two U.S. soldiers also were slightly injured in the bombing near the coalition headquarters, which is called the Green Zone, Kimmitt said. Three cars waiting in line at the headquarters were destroyed.
Abdul Razaq Abdul Karim, a gardener, was on the street near the checkpoint when a convoy with a police escort arrived moments before the blast. A red Volkswagen blew up in front of him.
"All I could see was a ball of fire rising into the air and there were body parts all around. We picked up the pieces and some of them were burned," he said.
A resident of the area, Shirin Mohammad, said she was awakened by the blast and heard gunfire.
"Our windows were blown out," she said.
Kimmitt said the bomb might have consisted of a couple of artillery rounds placed in the back of the vehicle, possibly in the trunk.
Saleem -- on his way to a daily council meeting -- was in a convoy of five vehicles, and the car carrying the bomb was adjacent to the council chief's car when it exploded, said witness Mohammed Laith.
Aquila al-Hashimi, another Shiite and one of three women on the 25-member Governing Council, was mortally wounded Sept. 20 when gunmen in a pickup truck ambushed her car as she drove near her Baghdad home. She died five days later.
Meanwhile, fighting persisted in the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, where American jets bombed militia positions in the city of Nasiriyah early Monday after fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drove Italian forces from a base there on Sunday. Seven fighters were killed in overnight battles, residents said.
On Monday, an Italian soldier died of wounds suffered during an attack on the base of the Carabinieri paramilitary police the day before in Nasiriyah, the Defense Ministry in Rome said. The soldier was the 20th Italian to die in Iraq -- a suicide truck bomb in Nasiriyah killed 19 on Nov. 12.
At least nine other Italian troops were injured in the clashes with armed supporters of al-Sadr, who launched an uprising against the coalition last month and faces an arrest warrant in the killing of a rival moderate cleric last year.
Despite the overnight bombing, militiamen controlled some government buildings in Nasiriyah, and some people looted cars, residents said.
U.S. jets also bombed targets in Karbala, and there were clashes in the city, witnesses said. The bodies of six militiamen were seen in the streets Monday.
There also were intermittent blasts and gunfire overnight in Najaf, al-Sadr's base of operations.
Amid the ongoing violence, the United States is looking to move some of its 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to bolster forces in Iraq.
"The U.S. government has told us that it needs to select some U.S. troops in South Korea and send them to Iraq to cope with the worsening situation in Iraq," said Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Bureau.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any shift in troops from South Korea would be part of the next rotation of American troops in Iraq, set to begin this summer.
At the World Economic Forum in Jordan, King Abdullah II said Jordan will not send peacekeeping troops to Iraq, and neither should any other neighboring nations because it could be too tempting to use them to improperly influence Iraqi society.
Also Monday, two Russian workers were freed in Iraq after a week as hostages, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)