Meanwhile, violence continued in parts of the country prior to elections planned for Jan. 30. Gunmen killed the son of Iraq’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, one of his representatives and four bodyguards in a town south of Baghdad on Thursday.
The hunt for banned weapons, one of the administration’s main reasons for going to war with Iraq, ended in December because of the violence in Iraq and a lack of new information, The Washington Post quoted intelligence officials as saying. The CIA declined to authorize any officials involved in the weapons search to speak on record.
Charles Duelfer, who led the weapons search in 2004, issued an interim report to Congress in September contradicting nearly every prewar assertion the administration made about Iraq. A senior intelligence official said those findings would serve as the survey group’s official report and be released this spring.
Duelfer is home now and is expected to issue a final addendum to his September report, which concluded that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials said before the March 2003 invasion that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, large chemical and biological weapon stockpiles and links to al-Qaida.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, when asked if the survey group had ended its search, said Wednesday, “That’s my understanding. … A lot of their mission is focused elsewhere now.”
White House officials have been reportedly reluctant to call off the hunt, saying the weapons may have been moved out of Iraq before the war or hidden somewhere within the country.
The 1,700-member Iraq Survey Group, now involved in counterinsurgency work, remains under Pentagon command and is being led by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Joseph McMenamin, the Post reported.
In Iraq, where violence continued Thursday ahead of scheduled elections at the end of the month, gunmen killed Sheik Mohammed Finjan, representative of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the town of Salman Pak, 12 miles southwest of Baghdad, Reuters reported.
Finjan was returning home from a mosque after evening prayers, said an official of the cleric’s office who asked to remain anonymous. The sheik’s son and four bodyguards also were killed in the incident.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million population and are expected to dominate the 275-member National Assembly in the first free elections in Iraq since it became independent in 1932. Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the population, have dominated since then.
In a separate incident, gunmen killed six Iraqis and kidnapped a Turkish businessman outside a hotel in Baghdad on Thursday.
According to police Lt. Bassam al-Abed, gunmen opened fire on a minibus that had come to pick up the Turkish businessman from the Bakhan Hotel at 6:30 a.m., killing all six aboard, the AP reported.
Police said the businessman, identified as Abdulkadir Tanrikulu, who runs a construction company, was kidnapped by at least 10 gunmen.