Suicide bombers kill at least 122 Iraqis

Five suicide bombers struck Shi’ite marketplaces in northeast Baghdad and a town north of the capital at nightfall, killing at least 122 people and wounding more than 150 in one of Iraq’s deadliest days in years.

The savage attacks on Thursday came as a new American ambassador began his first day on the job, and Senate Democrats ignored a veto threat and approved a bill to require US President George W Bush to start withdrawing troops.

At least 178 people were killed or found dead on Thursday, which marked the end of the seventh week of the latest US-Iraqi military drive to curtail violence in Baghdad and surrounding regions.

The suicide bombers hit markets in the Shi’ite town of Khalis and the Shaab neighbourhood in Baghdad during the busiest time of the day, timing that has become a trademark of what are believed to be Sunni insurgent or al-Qaeda suicide attackers.

Three suicide vehicle bombs, including an explosives-packed ambulance, detonated in a market in Khalis, 80 kilometres north of the capital, which was especially crowded because government flour rations had just arrived for the first time in six months, local television stations reported.

At least 43 people were killed and 86 wounded, police said.

In the north Baghdad bombings, two suicide attackers wearing explosives vests blew themselves up in the Shalal market in the predominantly Shi’ite Shaab neighbourhood. At least 79 people were killed and 81 wounded as they jammed the market to buy provisions on the eve of the Muslim day of rest and prayer.

The carnage in Iraq cast a shadow over Ryan Crocker’s first day as US ambassador. He takes over in the midst of the US-Iraqi security sweep, for which Bush committed nearly 30,000 additional troops to dampen what had become uncontrollable violence in the capital.

The US Senate’s rare rebuke to a wartime commander in chief came in a 51-47 vote to provide $US123 billion ($A152.65 billion) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senators also ordered Bush to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days of the bill’s passage, and set a non-binding goal of ending combat operations by March 31, 2008.

“President Bush’s policy is the right one. There has been progress; there is also much more to be done,” the 57-year-old Crocker said at his swearing in at the American embassy in Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace, which is now in the heart of the heavily guarded Green Zone.

Violence has increasingly erupted in towns and cities outside the capital in recent weeks, as insurgent fighters take their fight to regions where US and Iraqi forces are thinly deployed.

The US military and its diplomats have voiced cautious optimism about the sweep and emphasised that the full American surge force would not be in place until June. Crocker brought the same message.

“All of this will be very hard. But if I thought it impossible I would not be standing here today. I pledge my full support to this mission and to the people of Iraq, and I know you will do the same,” he said.

Crocker, an Arabic speaker, is among the most experienced US diplomats in the Middle East. He had been ambassador to Pakistan since 2004 and served as ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait, with other assignments in Iran, Qatar and Egypt.

In 2003, he was assigned to the Baghdad embassy when Iraq was being run by the Coalition Provisional Authority. In 1983 he was thrown against a wall but not seriously hurt when the American Embassy in Beirut was hit by a car bomb. In 1998, when he was in Damascus, the ambassador’s residence was overrun by rioters. Crocker was not hurt.

 

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