More bombs as Iraq works on security, politics

BAGHDAD (AP) — A suicide car bomber targeted a market in Sadr City — the main Shiite enclave in Baghdad — killing 17 people one day after Sunni insurgent bombers killed scores of university students just two miles away.

The bloody attacks two days running indicated Al Qaeda linked fighters were bent on their own surge of violence as US and Iraqi forces   gear     up    for  a fresh neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood security sweep through the capital.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki did not give a start date when he announced plans for a new drive to tame the violent capital — the third attempt since he took office on May 20.

But US and Iraqi reinforcements have started to arrive in Baghdad and it was expected to begin in about two weeks.

The explosion struck near a popular commercial area in Sadr City, a sprawling district of some 2.5 million people in eastern Baghdad, just before 4:00pm, shattering the windows of nearby shops and restaurants. Blood pooled in the street.

A charred mass of twisted metal — all that was left of the explosives-packed car — was surrounded by angry residents, who tipped it on its side and picked off pieces of blackened upholstery. At least 17 people were killed and 33 people were wounded, police said.

The carnage in Sadr City, just the latest in a series of brutal bombings, ripped through the neighbourhood a day after car bombs devastated Mustansiriya University when students were climbing aboard buses for the ride home. At least 70 were killed and more than 130 wounded.

It was single deadliest attack on civilians in Iraq since November 23, when a series of car bombs and mortar attacks in Sadr City killed at least 215 people.

Baghdad streets were crowded with cars and minivans carrying wooden caskets of the victims from the university attack — many headed to the holy city of Najaf where Shiites prefer to bury their dead. Others of the victims were taken to a Sunni cemetery in central Baghdad. The students were from all the country’s religious sects.

Hussein Mohammad, a lecturer in the university’s French language department, said classes were cancelled for two days while workers cleared the debris.

“We are trying to heal our wounds and start again,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Iraqi parliament stood in a moment of silence and lawmakers and students demanded stepped-up security for schools and universities.

There was no claim of responsibility for either attack, but suicide car bombs are the hallmark of Sunni rebels, who appear to be taking advantage of a waiting period before the security crackdown to step up attacks against Shiites. There had been a relative lull in Baghdad violence since the first of the year.

Maliki first announced the new security drive January 6, raising concerns that insurgents would just slip out of the capital to wait out the offensive. Some appear to have left, given the spike in violence in northern Iraq, where Sunni rebels have retreated in the face of previous assaults.

US President George W. Bush did not detail his version of the plan until Jan. 10, when he announced he was sending 21,500 more US troops to help stem the spiralling attacks devastating the country since a February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

The increase calls for sending 17,500 US combat troops to Baghdad and US Gen. George Casey said Monday that the new troops already had begun to arrive, although he declined to say when the operation would begin.

A suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in oil-rich Kirkuk, 290 kilometres north of Baghdad, killed 10 people and wounded dozens on Wednesday.

In all, police reported 70 people killed or found dead in Iraq, including 31 bullet-riddled bodies that turned up in Baghdad showing signs of torture, victims of apparent death squads that are largely run by Shiite factions like the Mehdi Army, which has its stronghold in Sadr City.

The US military also said two more American soldiers died — one on Wednesday after suffering wounds during an operation in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and another who died there Monday.

Maliki, meanwhile, met with the ambassadors of several countries, including the United States, to shore up support for his planned security operation to quell the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

He pledged to act equally against all gunmen, regardless of sect, his spokesman said. The Shiite prime minister is under heavy criticism over his past interference in US attempts to confront Shiite groups in two previous but failed attempts to bring calm to Baghdad.

“We want the international community to understand that the Baghdad security plan is targeting all the outlaws, it does not target a specific group or specific area, rather it targets all Baghdad,” said Ali Dabbagh, the spokesman.

The US capture last week of six Iranians working at a liaison office in the northern city of Erbil drew criticism Wednesday from the leader of the 130-member Shiite bloc in parliament, Abdul-Aziz Hakim. One of the six was released and the five others were alleged have links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents in Iraq.

“Regardless of the Iranian position, we consider these actions as incorrect,” Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. “They represent a kind of attack on Iraq’s sovereignty and we hope such things are not repeated.”

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