A car bomb ripped through a bustling shopping district in a religiously mixed neighborhood of western Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 10 people and wounding about 20 as the U.S.-Iraqi security operation entered its third week.
The midmorning blast in Baiyaa, a Sunni-Shiite neighborhood, sent flames and debris shooting two stories high, witnesses said. The force of the explosion peeled back corrugated tin roofs. Hours later, charred clothing still clung to the remnants of vendors’ stalls.
Imad Jassim, who owns a shop in Baiyaa’s market, said he ran out into the street when he heard the explosion.
“People were in a state of panic. There was a lot of blood on the ground, and we helped carry the wounded to the ambulances,” Jassim said. “The terrorists behind this massacre want to paralyze life in Baghdad by attacking markets and public crowds.”
Hours after the Baiyaa attack, police said guards outside the Bab al-Sheik police station in central Baghdad fired on a suicide truck bomber as he approached them. The bomber changed course and crashed into a cement barrier, detonating his explosives. Two civilians were killed and two policemen and another civilian were wounded in the blast and exchange of gunfire, police said.
The casualty count in the Baiyaa blast was provided by police and hospital officials.
While rescue workers swept still-smoldering debris in Baiyaa, U.S. and Iraqi government spokesmen held news conferences across town to praise what they called a dramatic decrease in violence.
Although car bombings and suicide attacks occur daily, Rear Adm. Mark Fox said overall violence had abated. Still, he cautioned more time was needed to secure Baghdad.
“Although we’ve seen some initial progress, we know our enemies will continue to attempt to disrupt our efforts, and that improving security in Iraq will take time,” he told reporters.
Iraq’s spokesman for the Baghdad plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, called the drop in attacks “remarkable.”
But a senior U.S. commander warned against optimistic conclusions after a couple of weeks.
“We could maintain security here, we could have things look good for one or two weeks,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told CNN. “But when we’ve done that, we’ve always had problems not maintaining it.”
Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander here, refused to speculate how long the Baghdad security operation would last but said “a minimum of six to nine months.”
He also said Sunni militants were responsible for about 70 percent of the attacks.
Ten bodies, the likely victims of sectarian death squads, were found Baghdad on Wednesday, police said. That daily toll has dropped by nearly half this month, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
A Health Ministry official said preliminary figures indicate a drop in the number of Iraqi civilians killed in February compared with the previous month.
The official, who monitors such figures, said 1,646 civilians were killed across Iraq between Feb. 1 and Tuesday. The ministry’s figure for January was 1,990 civilian deaths, according to the official.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to release the figures. Casualty counts by other groups, including the United Nations, have often been far higher than the Iraqi government figures.
At least 70 militants have been killed and more than 450 arrested in Baghdad since the security plan was announced Feb. 14, he said. More than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were confiscated in raids, al-Mousawi added.
In Wednesday’s operations, U.S. forces launched at least three raids in and around Baghdad, targeting al-Qaida in Iraq and locals suspected of harboring members of the terror group, the military said.
Eight people were killed in Taji, a town on the northern outskirts of Baghdad, when U.S. gunships fired into a palm grove where they were hiding, the U.S. said. Two people were detained there, and four others were captured in two other raids in Baghdad, the military said.
American intelligence reports indicated the area was being used for small arms and rocket attacks on U.S. troops, it added.
A U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday by small arms fire during a joint patrol with Iraqi police in western Baghdad, the military said. In the southern city of Basra, a British soldier was killed in a small arms attack the same day, Britain’s Defense Ministry said.
Two brothers of a leading Sunni lawmaker were gunned down in Muqdadiyah, a volatile city about 60 miles north of Baghdad, a relative said. The victims were the brothers of Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.
The party called the attack “cowardly” and a “desperate attempt to target moderate people.”
In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, police said a high-ranking officer and his driver were killed in a drive-by shooting.
Col. Abdul-Hadi Mohammed Saleh was on his way to work when gunmen sprayed his car with machine gun fire, police said. Saleh’s driver was killed and his bodyguard wounded, they added.
Police said at least four roadside bombs exploded south of Baghdad, killing two people in separate blasts.