The interim Iraqi government said, however, that after the US assault on the city of Falluja it was optimistic about the prospects of holding the elections on 30 January, despite the possibility that some Iraqi Sunnis might boycott them.

Egypt, Jordan and the Arab League all raised the possibility of delaying the elections beyond January, the date set by the UN Security Council, if the process is not inclusive.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghaith, the conference host, said the debate would indicate "whether it is really possible to hold these elections at the time fixed or whether the matter requires additional thought".

Hisham Yusuf, a senior adviser to Arab League chief Amr Musa, said many delegations had raised the same question.

"We would prefer inclusiveness by giving them more time rather than exclusiveness and on time," he said.

But a senior US official travelling with Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Sharm al-Shaikh conference said Washington believed the 30 January election date was "very feasible" and was working to help Iraqi leaders meet their goal.

Baghdad rocket attack

Underlining the proposals for a delay, violence continued throughout Iraq on Monday. In central Baghdad, a rocket slammed into a residential district, injuring five people, including a child, according to witnesses.

An influential Sunni cleric was
shot in Mosul

The blast triggered loud explosions and sent a giant cloud of black smoke rising over the eastern side of the Tigris river, which flows through the centre of the capital.

In a separate incident, a homemade bomb was found on a commercial airliner in Iraq on Monday, the US embassy said, adding that US citizens should beware of travelling on commercial carriers flying to the war-torn country.

Cleric buried

In northern Mosul, thousands of people took to the streets to bury a Sunni cleric who was shot dead on Monday.

Shaik Faidh Muhammad Amin al-Faidhi, a member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), was shot in his home in the morning, said an official at al-Jumhuri hospital.

He was taken to the hospital, where he died after surgery, medical source added.

The AMS has loudly opposed the US assault against the city of Falluja, and promised to boycott the January national elections.

Dr Rabia Yasin, a provincial health official in Mosul, said he believed al-Faidhi was assassinated. Three masked men opened fire at the victim when he answered the door to his home.

Ramadi attack 

In Ramadi, 110km west of Baghdad, fighters launched a deadly ambush on an Iraqi National Guard patrol on Sunday, killing eight guardsmen and wounding 18 others, police said on Monday.

 

Fighters have attacked Iraqi
police near the town of Ramadi

Several injured guardsmen were seen lying on the ground among the dead soldiers' bodies.

 

A spokesman from the Anbar provincial police force said the Iraqi forces were on patrol in the city centre when gunmen opened fire on their convoy about 4pm local time (1300 GMT).

 

Ramadi general hospital officials said all of the casualties suffered gunshot wounds.


The US defence department on Monday announced the recent deaths of a soldier and five marines from its forces in Iraq, including three who died after being transferred out of the country for treatment.

 

All had been on duty in Anbar province, which includes the city of Falluja, where US forces say they are completing a major operation to eject fighters opposed to the US-appointed government, said a Pentagon statement.