Copter down in Iraq; politicians bicker over security posts

BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iraqi tennis coach and two of his players were killed this week in Baghdad because they were wearing shorts, authorities said Saturday, one of a series of recent attacks attributed to Islamic fundamentalists.

In the volatile Anbar province west of the capital, a US Marine AH-1 Cobra helicopter went down Saturday and two crewmembers were missing, the military said. Hostile fire was not suspected as the cause of the crash, the military said.

Gunmen stopped the car in which the Sunni coach and two of his Shiite players were riding and asked them to step out before shooting them on Wednesday in volatile Saidiyah neighbourhood of southwestern Baghdad, said Manham Kubba, secretary general of the Iraqi Tennis Union.

Extremists distributed leaflets warning people in mostly Sunni neighbourhoods of Saidiyah and Ghazaliyah warning people not to wear shorts, police said.

“Wearing shorts by youth are prohibited because it violates the principles of Islamic religion when showing forbidden parts of the body. Also women should wear the veil,” the leaflets said.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but it came amid a fear of a rise in Islamic extremism in the wartorn country.

Sunni cleric Eid Zoubayi denounced the attack on the athletes.

“Islamic religion is an easy religion and it allows wearing sport shorts as long as they don’t show the forbidden parts of the body, so the acts that are targeting the sport are criminal,” he said.

The killing of the tennis players was the second attack against athletes in just over a week.

A taekwondo team was kidnapped in western Iraq while driving to a training camp in neighbouring Jordan on May 17.

The 15 athletes were snatched on a road between the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

More than 30 people were killed in attacks nationwide Saturday, including four who died when a bomb in a parked car exploded near a busy bus station in southern Baghdad.

Seven people also were wounded in the blast, which left passersby bloodied and damaged a local restaurant.

The US military also said a Marine was killed Friday by “enemy action” in the volatile Anbar province. The death raised to at least 2,466 the number of service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The Marine helicopter was on a maintenance test flight when it went down and search and rescue efforts were ongoing for the missing crewmembers, the statement added.

“We are using all the resources available to find our missing comrades,” said Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Salas.

The violence is continuing as Iraqi politicians bicker over candidates for the key defence and interior ministry posts, leaving Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government incomplete a week after he assumed office.

Sunni politician Adnan Dulaimi urged caution in making a decision on the two posts.

“We hope the agreement will be reached within two or three days,” he told reporters. “I think that to linger and take some time in choosing the ministers is better than rushing into it.” Political parties have agreed that a sunni will head the Defence ministry and a Shiite will run the Interior Ministry. But they haven’t agreed to the personalities.

The visiting Iranian foreign minister, meanwhile, left politics behind as he travelled to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, where he met with Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and radical anti-US cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was wrapping up the second high-level visit by an Iranian delegation since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, praised Sistani for his “remarkable” efforts to maintain the unity in Iraq amid rising sectarian tensions.

Mottaki’s detour to the southern cities after meeting with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Friday highlighted the warming ties between the majority Shiite neighbouring countries more than three years after Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime was ousted. In other developments Saturday, according to police and hospital officials:

— Gunmen broke into a gardening store in Baghdad and killed the Shiite owner.

— Gunmen attacked the convoy of the office manager of the Diyala police chief south of Baqouba. The colonel was injured and five of his guards were killed.

— A policeman was shot to death and two others were wounded north of Tikrit.

— A man suspected of belonging to Saddam’s former Fedayeen militia was shot to death west of Mosul.

— A former Iraqi army colonel and his nephew were killed in a drive-by shooting near Baqouba.

— A teacher was killed after he was caught in the cross fire during a firefight between gunmen and Iraqi national guards at a checkpoint west of Baghdad.

— Gunmen in two cars killed four policemen and one civilian, while masked gunmen broke into a workshop, killing four metal workers and wounding another in Baqouba.

— The body of a man who was shot in the chest was found floating on the Euphrates River near Hillah.

— Two separate roadside bombs killed four policemen and wounded five others in Baghdad.

— A grocer, a taxi driver and his son, and the owner of a glass store were shot to death in three separate attacks in the capital.

— Masked gunmen stopped a minibus carrying university students from Mosul, killing one of the students.

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