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Suicide blast kills council head, blow to US

Baghdad, May 17 (Reuters): A suicide car bomber killed the head of Iraq’s governing council today, a major new blow to US-led occupiers battling a Shia insurgency and a growing prisoner abuse scandal as they prepare to hand over sovereignty.

The bomber killed Izzedin Salim and six other people as a council convoy was heading into the heavily guarded “Green Zone” headquarters of the US-led authorities in central Baghdad for a meeting just six weeks before the handover.

The blast, which left a one-metre crater in the road, tore through several cars and a crowd of pedestrians lining up at a checkpoint to get into the compound of former Saddam Hussein palaces.

US officials said bombing bore the stamp of al Qaida figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. An Islamic website carried a claim of responsibility from an Iraqi group, the “Arab Resistance Group - al-Rashid Brigades”.

The bomb contained an artillery shell, like one a suicide bomber used against another Green Zone checkpoint on May 6 and which a group led by al-Zarqawi said it carried out, US officials said.

They also said a small amount of the nerve agent sarin was found in an artillery shell that exploded in Iraq a few days ago, the first announcement of a definitive discovery of any of the weapons of mass destruction on which Washington made its case for war.

Salim, who held the council’s rotating presidency, had just spent three days in the northern city of Arbil with UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is trying to forge a consensus on an interim government to take office on the handover and lead Iraq to elections in January.

Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, a Sunni, takes over the presidency of the council.

Washington says the interim government’s powers will be limited and security will be in the hands of US commanders, but some members of the council expected to form its core said today’s suicide bomb proved they should yield control to the new government.

“The US security plan for Iraq has failed,” Ahmad Chalabi said. “There is no alternative except to adopt a definition of sovereignty that includes full control over the security forces.”

Members of the US-appointed council were clearly among the bombers’ targets, said Mahmoud Othman, who is one of them. “If the security situation stays as it is, the sovereign government will be weak because the government won’t be able to function properly,” he said.

Britain, a staunch US ally, said the bomb would not force the coalition out of Iraq.

“We are not going to have any so-called quick exit, there will be no cutting and running,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during a visit to Turkey.

But a spokeswoman for Blair said training of Iraqi security forces would be stepped up to allow them to take over quickly.

“The strategy is to allow the Iraqis to take control as soon as possible and to allow us to leave as soon as possible,” she said. “We want Iraq to be run by Iraqis.”

However, an uprising by the Mehdi Army of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the main towns of the Shia south has stretched coalition forces. US defence officials said 3,600 soldiers would be sent to Iraq this summer from South Korea for a year.

Outrage at the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad has shredded US credibility across the Arab world and threatened President George W. Bush’s bid for re-election in November.

Red Cross head quits

The head of the Washington office of the International Committee of the Red Cross has resigned for “personal reasons,” amid turmoil created by a secret ICRC report on Iraqi prisoner abuse by US forces.

Christophe Girod, a 17-year veteran of the international body, declined today to comment on his reasons for leaving and would not say whether his decision was linked to dismay over the body’s handling of the Iraqi abuse scandal. “I am leaving for private reasons. I have had 17 years of the ICRC and it’s time to try something else,” said Girod.

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