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Death and pullout deal double blow to US

Baghdad, Sept. 26 (Reuters): The UN evacuated staff from Baghdad as Iraqis paid last respects today to a leading politician whose murder plunged US efforts to rebuild the country into further turmoil.

The assassination of Akila al-Hashemi, who died yesterday five days after gunmen opened fire on her car, and the UN pullout, following two suicide bomb attacks, were fresh setbacks to a US bid to get more international help to police and rebuild Iraq.

In an effort to forge an international consensus, US secretary of state Colin Powell advocated a deadline of six months for Iraqi leaders working under the American occupation to produce a new constitution — paving the way for elections.

“We would like to put a deadline on them,” he said in an interview in The New York Times published today. “They’ve got six months. It’ll be a difficult deadline to meet but we’ve got to get them going.” Washington has been resisting pressure from countries such as France and Germany for an early handover of power to Iraqis, saying this would just worsens the chaos plaguing the country.

In the town of Baquba, a hotbed of guerrilla activity northeast of Baghdad, a mortar attack on a market killed eight Iraqis last evening, the US military said. A spokesman said no US troops were wounded. More than 15 people were injured and locals said the death toll would have been higher if the attack happened earlier in the day when the market was busier.

“We don’t know who was behind this crime — maybe people who want to destabilise Iraq or people who were trying to target the Americans,” Khaled Youssef said. “But in the end, it was Iraqis who were killed.”

In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a US army vehicle killed one soldier and wounded two yesterday, the military said. The attack brought to 80 the number of US soldiers killed by guerrillas since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1.

Bush is trying to win agreement for a greater UN role in Iraq in return for more international help in terms of troops and cash. But securing funding has been difficult — the European Commission said it would offer 200 million euros ($230 million) to help rebuild Iraq up to the end of next year, a far cry from the $20 billion Washington has pledged to spend.

And efforts in New York to agree a wider UN mandate are in stark contrast to events on the ground in Baghdad, where many international staff are leaving.

The United Nations ordered a further pullout of staff from Iraq yesterday. A UN spokeswoman in Baghdad said around a third of the 42 international staff remaining in the capital would leave over the next few days.

A suicide car bomber blew himself up near the UN compound on Monday, also killing a security guard, a month after a truck bomb attack on the building killed 22 people including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.

“There have been two attacks and we cannot go on like this,” Veronique Taveau said. “But the UN is not pulling out of Iraq. We are committed to the work we are doing here.”

She said the evacuation would not affect the day-to-day running of UN humanitarian programmes.

UN sources said secretary-general Kofi Annan’s security aides had advocated a total withdrawal but Powell expressed concern about the impact such a move would have on Iraq.

The outcome was a compromise. A UN security official in Baghdad said the conditions were the most dangerous he had seen.

“I’ve worked from Somalia to Rwanda to Bosnia to Timor and I’ve never seen anything like this,” the official said. “We’ve never had anyone actually target us like this before.”

Diplomats and prominent Iraqis held a memorial ceremony today for Hashemi, who had been due to be part of the Iraqi delegation to the UN General Assembly this week.

Members of her family carried her coffin, draped in an Iraqi flag, into the governing council offices, chanting the Islamic declaration of faith. Colleagues said her death would not weaken the council’s determination.

“Those who thought that the death of Dr Akila would disrupt the march towards the dawn of democracy and freedom will be disappointed,” council member Iyad Allawi said.

The body was taken to the holy city of Najaf for burial.

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