BAGHDAD — The head of a committee tasked with rooting out Iraqis with ties to Saddam Hussein's deposed regime and who was once arrested for alleged ties to Shiite militias was shot to death late Thursday in Baghdad, officials said.
Ali al-Lami was a divisive figure in Iraqi politics who had close ties to neighboring Iran's Shiite Muslim government and was known for the vigor with which he tried to root out Saddam-era loyalists from all levels of Iraqi government. He also ran afoul of the U.S. after he was implicated in a bombing that killed Americans.
His role last year in trying to oust hundreds of Sunni candidates from running in the parliamentary election due to alleged ties to the Saddam regime fueled criticism that Iraqi Shiites, backed by Iran, were trying to sideline Sunnis from power and threatened to re-ignite sectarian tensions.
Now he has become the latest victim of an assassination campaign across Baghdad and Iraq that has resulted in the deaths of tens of Iraqi political and governmental figures.
The top military spokesman for Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said gunmen opened fire and killed al-Lami as he was driving in his car in eastern Baghdad. His driver also died in the shooting, said two police officers.
Al-Lami racked up a long list of political enemies during his years on the Iraqi political scene. He was long suspected of having ties to Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. He headed the Accountability and Justice Committee responsible tasked with vetting people trying to get government jobs or take political office for ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which ruled Iraq for decades.
During last year's parliamentary election, the committee tried to bar hundreds of candidates from taking part. Most were from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which went on to win the most seats in the election.
The top American military commander in Iraq at the time, Gen. Ray Odierno, said al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, also a committee member, were influenced by Iran and had attended meetings of the Shiite regime there.
One of the committee's targets was Saleh al-Mutlaq, who later became the deputy prime minister as part of lengthy negotiations to come up with a new government headed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Speaking from Jordan, al-Mutlaq said he was shocked and saddened by al-Lami's death.
"He is a human being, and he's an Iraqi. I know him personally," al-Mutlaq said, adding, "He was directed by the Iranian regime. He took orders."
The deputy prime minister said it was too early to tell who was responsible for his death, but said: "Thousands of people are living in very bad conditions because they were hurt by this organization," referring to the Accountability and Justice Committee.
For supporters and close friends of al-Lami, it was immediately clear who killed him. A spokesman for Chalabi said al-Lami was likely killed by Baath Party loyalists angry at his campaign against them.
"My first suspect would be the Baath party," said Entifadh Qanbar. "I'm very sure that the Baathists hold a very huge grudge against him. ... He got so many threats."
Al-Lami was arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2008 for suspected ties to Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and was accused by U.S. officials at the time of being involved in a bombing that killed eight people, including two American soldiers and two State Department employees.
His arrest reinforced suspicions about Tehran's influence within the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
Al-Lami's death came on the same day that followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr staged a huge rally designed as a dramatic show of strength against any move to allow American forces to stay in Iraq past their Dec. 31 deadline.
Under an agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the 46,000 troops still in Iraq must leave by Dec. 31. Iraq's widespread instability and still struggling security forces have led U.S. and Iraqi leaders to reconsider the deadline for the sake of the country's security.
U.S. officials have been pushing Iraq to decide whether it wants some American forces to remain, and al-Maliki has said he'll discuss it with the country's main political blocs.
But the throngs on the street in Sadr City, a slum in eastern Baghdad that is an al-Sadr stronghold, was a stark warning to al-Maliki about what he risks if U.S. forces stay longer.
Tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen belonging to al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and other supporters marched through the streets. Although unarmed, their matching T-shirts and caps and marching in unison evoked the spirit of a military parade rather than a political rally.
"I am asking for the withdrawal of the occupation. I am ready to fight from this moment. I am ready to sacrifice. I am ready for death," said one marcher, 42-year-old Hussein Abu Lika.
The militia members waved Iraqi flags and shouted, "No, no, America!"
U.S., Israeli and British flags were painted on the pavement to be stomped on by the marching protesters, and Iraqi military helicopters buzzed overhead while soldiers stood guard.
Al-Sadr is one of the few, maybe only, Iraqi political leaders able to raise such a large crowd. Many of them are impoverished Shiites from southern Iraq and Baghdad who are drawn to his anti-American, nationalist rhetoric and his family's deep roots in Iraqi political and religious life.
But to many Iraqis, al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army are little more than thugs blamed for some of the worst of the sectarian attacks during the insurgency.