BAGHDAD (AP) â€” The US military said on Thursday the brutal insurgent bombings that killed nearly 200 people in Baghdad over the past two days were a “predictable spike in violence” tied to the coming referendum on Iraq’s new constitution.
As suicide bombers continued their campaign in Baghdad for a second day, at least 31 people were killed â€” 24 of them Iraqi police and interior ministry commandos, who have become the target of choice for the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
At least seven of the 570 people wounded in Wednesday’s attacks have died, hospital officials said, raising the death toll to at least 167 in the worst day of killing to hit the capital since the US led invasion 2 1/2 years ago.
“These spikes of violence are predictable around certain critical events that highlight the progress of democracy,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief US military spokesman.
“Remember, democracy equals failure for the insurgency.
â€œSo there has to be heightened awareness now as we work our way towards the referendum. …That’s power, that’s movement towards democracy,” Lynch said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, headed by terrorist Abu Mussab Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the bombing campaign launched after a joint Iraqi-US force of 8,500 stormed the northern insurgent bastion of Tal Afar earlier this week.
Zarqawi purportedly declared “all-out war” on Shiites, Iraqi troops and the government in what the United States has called a desperate propaganda campaign to derail the country’s political process with just a month left before the constitutional referendum.
Leaders of the Sunni minority in Iraq have vowed to defeat the constitution, which they claim favours the Shiite majority and the Kurds.
Lynch said the joint force had killed 145 insurgents and captured 361 in the second operation in a year to rid Tal Afar of militants, including foreign fighters crossing from nearby Syria.
Now, he said, US forces along with the Iraqis were fighting to regain control of the border with Syria, near the western insurgent stronghold of Qaim well to the south of Tal Afar.
“The focus is… to restore control of the border and in this particular case the border with Syria,” he said. “We believe that the terrorists and foreign fighters are entering Iraq across the Syrian border, down the Euphrates River Valley into Baghdad.” The Thursday violence only served to deepen the misery in Baghdad, where city streets were noticeably quieter Thursday â€” deserted in the southern Dora district where the bombings were concentrated.
US and Iraqi forces using loudspeakers roamed the district warning residents to stay in doors because five more suicide car bombers were believed to be in the area.
Many of the victims in the Wednesday attacks died shortly after dawn when a suicide bomber lured day labourers to his small van, promising work before and then detonating his explosives in the heavily Shiite Kazimiyah district in north Baghdad.
Many victims were taken to for burial Thursday in the huge Shiite cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres south of Baghdad.
“We appeal to the government to punish those criminals immediately,” said a teary Ali Hamza, father of one of the victims.
As Al Qaeda in Iraq intensified its bombing and propaganda campaign, the government hit back with threats of its own.
“We will not retreat or be silent. There will be no room for you [insurgents] in all of Iraq. We will chase you wherever you go,” Defence Minister Sadoun Dulaimi, a Sunni, said at a news conference.
The Iraqi authorities have taken pains in recent days to convince the population that the insurgency is overwhelming foreign, claiming, for example, that they arrested a Palestinian and a Libyan in the Kazimiyah attack. The bomber was a Syrian, the government said without detailing evidence.
The Americans have quietly contradicted the government line, saying the insurgency is only about 20 per cent foreign.
The massive bombings took place with both Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari in the United States.
“Today, Iraq is facing one of the most brutal campaigns of terror at the hands of the forces of darkness,” Talabani said Thursday in his address to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
“We are in desperate need of your experience, investment and your moral support for the effort to fight terrorism,” he said in an appeal for international help.
With bombs continuing to exploded in Baghdad, US forces and insurgents reportedly clashed in the troubled western city of Ramadi, a militant stronghold on the main road to neighbouring Jordan. A web posting purportedly from Al Qaeda in Iraq said its forces had engaged the American military in the predominantly Sunni city of about 800,000.
Police Capt. Nasir Alusi said US and Iraqi troops in Ramadi came under mortar attack in the morning as armed militants roamed the streets. All shops were closed and the streets were empty. Automatic gunfire echoed through the city’s industrial zone, he said.
The Americans did not confirm the engagement, but Lynch said US operations were continuing in Anbar Province, of which Ramadi is the capital. There were no reports of American deaths.
The Associated Press has obtained the text of minor and final changes made in the draft constitution. The United Nations is to print the document in Baghdad and insure its distribution before the referendum. The UN said it was awaiting final approval from parliament before printing the draft charter. There were conflicting reports on when parliament would sign off on the document.
Two articles in the draft were changed, one was dropped entirely and a new one added. The main change came with the addition of a clause noting that Iraq was a founding member of the Arab League, an addition sought by Sunni Arabs to underline the country’s links with the Arab world.
The dropped article gave the constitution precedence over international human rights agreements, which the United States asked to be removed.