Basra car explosion kills 27

Gunmen shoot dead Russian embassy employee, kidnap 4 others 

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Gunmen shot dead a Russian embassy employee in Baghdad on Saturday, and a car bomb killed at least 28 people in Basra in one of the deadliest attacks the oil-rich city has seen since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Four other Russian embassy staff were kidnapped when gunmen blocked their vehicle in Baghdad’s well-to-do Mansour district, Russian and Iraqi officials said. It was the latest of many attacks on foreigners in the lawless capital.

One Iraqi police source later said the hostages had been rescued by special forces, but this could not be immediately confirmed. The Russian foreign ministry and the embassy declined to comment.

The violence was yet another reminder of the challenges that new Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, a tough-talking Shiite Islamist, faces in delivering on his pledge to restore stability in the strife-torn country.

Key to that will be the naming of non-sectarian interior and defence ministers who can quell communal and insurgent violence, after the two jobs remained empty due to wrangling when Maliki’s government took office two weeks ago.

Government sources said leaders were close to a deal to present to parliament on Sunday former Shiite army officer Farouk Araji for interior minister and a Sunni army commander, General Abdel Qader Jassim, for defence minister.

They will have to deal with carnage such as the bomb in Basra, where Maliki imposed a one-month state of emergency on Wednesday to tackle criminal gangs and Shiite factions whose feuding threatens crucial oil exports.

Hospital sources said at least 28 people died and 68 were wounded in the blast.

The Iraqi army boosted its presence on the streets of Basra after the blast, witnesses said.

The southern region patrolled by British forces had been relatively calm compared to insurgent strongholds further north where American forces are based.

But security in Basra has deteriorated over the past year as rival groups within Iraq’s Shiite majority compete for power.

Diplomats targeted

Diplomats and other foreigners in Iraq have often been targeted in kidnappings and killings in the last three years.

The Russian foreign ministry identified the dead embassy employee as Vitaly Titov. It said the four kidnapped included a a third secretary at the mission, Fyodor Zaitsev.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov said Moscow was in contact with Iraqi leaders and US-led forces in the country to do everything possible to secure a quick release.

Iraqi interior ministry sources said gunmen in three cars blocked a road and shot at the embassy vehicle. A police source and a nearby resident said the victims had been buying food.

Reuters Television footage showed a white sports utility vehicle with a smashed window, its trunk filled with vegetables and other foodstuff. Blood on the pavement suggested someone had been shot outside the car, but this could not be confirmed.

North of Baghdad, gunmen killed six Iraqi policemen on Saturday in an attack on a checkpoint in the town of Baqouba, in a religiously mixed and volatile area.

In a discovery gruesome even by Iraqi standards, police also said they found the severed heads of seven cousins and an imam by the side of the road near Baqouba.

Notes left with the heads and read by ambulance workers identified one as Sheikh Abdel Aziz Mashhadani, the imam of a Sunni Arab mosque near Baghdad. The note accused him of killing four Shiite physicians.

Just two weeks after Maliki took office, relations between his government and the United States appear to have been soured by accusations of US troops killing Iraqi civilians.

Iraq vowed on Saturday to press on with its own probe into the deaths of civilians in a US raid on the town of Ishaqi in March, rejecting the US military’s exoneration of its forces.

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