A suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint Wednesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, killing at 11 people in the spiritual heartland of the militia factions led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.In Baghdad, political tremors grew following claims that a Sunni woman was raped while in custody of the Shiite-dominated police _ a case that threatens to escalate the sectarian friction that drives many of the bombings and attacks across the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired the head of the influential Sunni Endowment, who had called for an international investigation into the rape allegations.
The Najaf blast hit while streets were filled with morning shoppers. At least two of the victims were police and the rest civilians, authorities said. It was the first major bombing in months in the city, which is heavily guarded by police and al-Sadr’s powerful Mahdi Army militia.
On Aug. 10, a suicide attack near the Imam Ali mosque killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 100.
Najaf is a major Shiite pilgrim destination for its iconic Imam Ali shrine near the city’s huge cemetery _ used as a burial place for Shiites throughout the country. It also is headquarters of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and al-Sadr, whose militia engaged in heavy fighting with U.S. forces in the area in 2004.
Government officials marked the first week of a major security sweep in Baghdad by U.S. and Iraqi forces seeking to put death squads and insurgents on the run. But a string of bombings in the Baghdad area _ which have claimed more than 100 lives since Sunday _ have quieted the early fanfare and highlighted the huge challenges of trying to reclaim control of the blood-soaked capital.
A car bomb in the western Baghdad district of Bayya killed at least two and injured 31, police said. The area is mixed between Sunni and Shiites and had been a hotbed of sectarian tensions.
The Iraqi spokesman for the security plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said the campaign to reclaim control of the city neighborhood by neighborhood “has achieved very important goals despite the expected criminal reactions.”
“God willing, the plan will continue to uproot terrorists and outlaws across Baghdad and other areas,” he told a news conference. He added that 42 “terrorists” have been killed in the sweeps and more than 250 suspected militants arrested.
The rape allegation by the 20-year-old woman, which surfaced on Monday, has sent the political leadership into turmoil.
A statement by al-Maliki’s office gave no reason for the dismissal of Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie, who directed the state agency overseeing Sunni mosques and seminaries. But suspicion fell on his harsh criticism of the government’s handling of the rape allegations.
The government’s quick rejection of the woman’s claims have outraged many Sunnis, who accused al-Maliki of a high-level cover-up. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a militant Sunni group known to have links with insurgent groups, called it a “moral genocide” and warned of more fallout ahead.
“Those who perpetrated this crime must know their guilt will not be forgotten,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.
A statement by al-Maliki’s office accused “certain parties” _ presumably Sunni politicians _ of inventing the claims in an attempt to undermine security forces during the Baghdad security operation.
Meanwhile, plans for troops withdrawals were expected in Britain and Denmark.
Britain will withdraw nearly half its troops from Iraq by the end of the year if local forces can secure the southern part of the country, Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to announce Wednesday.
Around 1,500 of Britain’s 7,000-strong force will return home shortly, a British government official said, while speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak before Blair’s statement. Britain has long been America’s biggest coalition partner.
Blair’s office said the British leader would make a statement to Britain’s parliament on Iraq and the Middle East following his weekly House of Commons questions session, but would not disclose the content.
Blair planned to outline a strategy which would leave about 4,000 British soldiers in southern Iraq by the end of 2007 if the security there is sufficient, the official said.
Denmark was expected to announce plans to begin pulling its troops from Iraq, Danish media reported. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has earlier said he hoped the nation would be able to start scaling back its 460-troop contingent this year. He has not yet set a precise timetable.
The Danes serve under British command in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Also Wednesday, the military said a U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in the volatile Anbar province. The Marine was killed Tuesday during combat operations in the insurgent stronghold in western Iraq. At least 3,149 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.