NAJAF, Iraq - Iraq's former prime minister Iyad Allawi said gunmen tried to assassinate him in Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrine on Sunday, forcing him to cut short an election campaign visit pursued by an angry mob.
"It appeared to be an assassination attempt," the secular Shi'ite said. 60-70 men in black, armed with guns and knives, set upon his small party as he prayed at the Imam Ali mosque.
One took aim but dropped his gun, said the former US-backed premier, who is mounting a strong challenge to the ruling Shi'ite Islamist bloc in the run-up to the December 15 parliamentary vote.
No independent account of the incident was available.
Police said Allawi's group was attacked by men with batons and fled the shrine under a hail of rocks, tomatoes and shoes -- the latter a mark of grave insult in Iraqi culture. Television images showed people running out as others threw sandals.
Allawi, who seems to relish playing up to a tough-guy image and once barely survived an axe attack by agents of Saddam Hussein, refused to accuse any group directly. But broad hints that Shi'ite Islamists had a hand in it are likely to inflame an already bad-tempered campaign for the majority Shi'ite vote.
In particular, aides said his assailants chanted support for supporters of militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose black- uniformed Mehdi Army militia rose up in Najaf against Allawi's government in 2004 before being crushed by US troops.
"We believe this was premeditated ... it was very clear that they had evil intent to kill either the whole delegation or at least me," he said. "This man who dropped the gun appeared to be panicked when the gun fell from his hand."
Referring to the killing in 2003 at the same mosque of a leading cleric, widely blamed on Sadr's movement, aides said the attackers chanted Sadr's name: "It was the same chanting ... linked to the martyrdom of Abdul Majeed al-Khoei," Allawi said.
Police said some of Allawi's guards and police fired in the air around the sprawling mosque complex as the politician's party ran for safety. A colleague who was accompanying Allawi said he heard several shots but was unaware who had fired.
Two police officers said they believed Sadr's supporters were responsible: "When Allawi entered the shrine, a few people, believed to be Sadrists picked up batons and threatened to attack him," a captain said at the scene after the incident.
Sadr aides were not immediately available for comment.
Allawi's electoral list includes several prominent Sunni Muslims and his promises to crack down on pro-government religious militias have won backing across the sectarian divide.
"We will punish these groups that terrify the Iraqi people and violate holy places," said Allawi, who last week accused the government of abusing human rights as badly as Saddam -- winning praise from the once dominant Sunni minority which complains that Islamist militias are running death squads against them.
The government denied responsibility when US troops found dozens of maltreated Sunni prisoners last month in a secret Interior Ministry bunker in Baghdad.
Allawi supporters have complained that Islamist parties have prevented them campaigning in Shi'ite cities like Najaf and Kerbala, using intimidation. Some Shi'ite religious politicians have accused Allawi, once a member of Saddam's Baath party, of planning to reinstate Baathist-style secular authoritarian rule.
One election poster in Shi'ite towns has portrayed simply a portrait of Saddam with Allawi's face partly superimposed.