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Robertson: 'Bullet casings were flying around us'

CNN's Nic Robertson


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


On the Scene
Cable News Network (CNN)
Nic Robertson

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- An angry group of Iraqis chased former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his bodyguards from a Shiite shrine Sunday in the city of Najaf. Police fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd.

CNN anchor Tony Harris spoke with CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, who who was traveling with Allawi. Allawi, a secular Shiite, was in Najaf to meet with religious leaders as he campaigned for this month's election to the Iraqi parliament.

ROBERTSON: Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, went to one of the holy cities in Iraq today, Najaf, to meet with religious leaders to try and build support for his political campaign. As he was inside the holy shrine praying, a crowd gathered chanting slogans against him. As I watched, he was chased by a large crowd from the mosque. They were throwing their shoes at him, which is a very derogatory thing to do here in the Middle East. (Watch as Allawi is chased from mosque -- 3:12)

As that crowd swelled around him and forced him, ejected him from the shrine, that's when the gunfire began. Mr. Allawi had had a lot of security present --Iraqi army, Iraq police as well as his own private security. Many of those gunmen began to fire in the air. It wasn't clear if they were shooting at gunmen who were targeting Mr. Allawi or they were just shooting in defense of him to try and get him out of the area.

His convoy of vehicles, which must have been about 15 vehicles, turned in their tracks in the street, screeched down the road. I could smell the rubber burning, the bullet casings were flying around us as we drove out of the town as his security convoy tried to get him away from the danger.

Within a few minutes, Apache helicopters were deployed overhead to secure his convoy until he got back to a secure compound.

HARRIS: Nic, where was he campaigning, in a Shiite area or a Sunni area? Can you tell us that?

ROBERTSON: It's a very religious Shia area. Mr. Allawi is a secular Shia, and he's known here for being a strong man and being able to build support across the sectarian divide. What he wanted to do was win those critical religious Shia votes, and he came to meet some of the religious Shia leaders.

When I spoke to some of the other politicians who were accompanying Mr. Allawi, part of his campaign team today, they told me that they believed this was an orchestrated assassination attempt on Mr. Allawi. They said that they believed it had been orchestrated by some of the religious Shia militia that exist in Iraq at this time. ..

HARRIS: ... Do we know why that might be the case?

ROBERTSON: It's not clear, Tony. It's quite possibly an effort to try and discredit Mr. Allawi ... to make him not appear to be popular in this particular area, indeed to put him off campaigning in this town. This is, the election now unlike earlier in the year, [will] put people in power for the next four years. This is tremendously important, and it appears that at this stage we've had political assassinations. So far one of Mr. Allawi's fellow politicians in his party was assassinated just three or four days ago, so the stakes are very high and it seems people are playing for these high stakes at this time.

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