BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s largest group of Sunni Muslim clerics ordered their followers Wednesday to boycott January’s parliamentary elections if American forces don’t break off their military campaign in the flash-point city of Fallujah, which is now ringed by U.S. Marines and besieged by daily aerial bombardment.

Gathering from across northern and western Iraq at the Umm al Qura mosque outside Baghdad, the clerics in the Muslim Scholars Association, whose followers make up 35 percent of Iraq’s population, called on Arab leaders throughout the Middle East to condemn U.S. actions in Fallujah and “end their silence, which brings frustration and anger.” They ruled that Iraqis have a religious duty to fight American-led forces, according to a statement issued from the mosque.

“The esteemed clerics bless the Fallujah sons for their jihad and patience,” the statement read, invoking the Arabic word often translated as “holy war.”

The clerics’ statement was the strongest open opposition yet to pledges by U.S. officials and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to retake Fallujah from insurgents who’ve controlled it since April, underscoring the serious consequences the battle for the city could have.

One airstrike Wednesday reportedly killed an Iraqi family, as shown in video footage of rescue workers digging a couple and their four children from the rubble of their home. American officials denied the civilian deaths, blaming the report on a “known Zarqawi propagandist.”

A senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official said the evidence pointed to a U.S. airstrike.

“They told me they didn’t have an air raid at that time and that it couldn’t be them,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “Who else could be dropping these bombs?”

Elsewhere in Iraq, at least six Iraqis died and 11 American soldiers were wounded in clashes in Samarra, the city north of Baghdad that the U.S. military said it had pacified after a much-hailed offensive earlier this month. At least four Iraqi children were killed and the soldiers and their translator were injured when a pair of car bombs exploded near a nursery school in Samarra on Wednesday afternoon, according to a U.S. military release.

In Baghdad, the humanitarian organization CARE International suspended operations a day after its local director was kidnapped. Gunmen seized Margaret Hassan, a British-Iraqi national in her 60s, en route to her office. Hassan’s Iraqi husband appeared on television, begging the kidnappers to release his wife “in the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood.”

Kate Bulbulian, a London-based CARE spokeswoman, said no group had claimed responsibility for the abduction and no demands had been issued. She said some staff members would remain in Iraq.

“We didn’t pull out. Our staff are Iraqi nationals,” Bulbulian said. “We just suspended our operations. As soon as it’s safe again, we’ll resume.”

The U.S. strikes on Fallujah are intended to root out suspected terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born Islamic extremist who’s accused of many of the grisly bombings and beheadings of recent months. The U.S. military announced that airstrikes Wednesday “struck two fortified Zarqawi-network safe houses” where fighters trained and stored ammunition.

Residents of Fallujah say the U.S. campaign has killed scores of innocent civilians, and Allawi has infuriated many Iraqis by threatening Fallujah residents with military consequences if they don’t turn in al-Zarqawi. Fallujah resident say it’s unfair to punish an entire city for the actions of bands of militants. Leaders have said they don’t have the ability to surrender al-Zarqawi.

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Al-Zarqawi heads Iraq’s most-feared terrorist organization, Tawhid and Jihad, which reportedly was renamed this week to reflect his newfound public allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. The new moniker – al-Qaida of Jihad in the Land of Two Rivers – appeared Tuesday on a Web site used by militants.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have said wresting control of Fallujah from al-Zarqawi and other anti-American fighters is key to bringing democratic elections to Sunni-dominated areas. Members of the Muslim Scholars Association disagreed Wednesday.

“It is unacceptable to use the pretext of elections to invade towns,” the group said in a statement released after the meeting. “We will call on Iraqis to boycott the polls and to consider the results null and void in case of operations in Fallujah.”

The statement called the U.S.-led strikes in Fallujah part of “a war of extermination led against the Iraqi people by the forces of the occupation with the help of government and militia forces.”

Among the participants at the clerics’ meeting were representatives of the Iraqi Islamic Party, whose head was a member of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and who now sits in the interim national assembly.

The party joined several other influential Sunni groups in boycotting various stages of the political process, saying there can be no democracy as long as 135,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.



(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Omar Jassim and David George contributed to this report.)



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041020 Hostage update, 20041020 CARE logo

AP-NY-10-20-04 1900EDT


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