Surge of violence in Iraq continues

Sunni-led insurgents killed at least nine people, including women and children, with a car bomb in a crowded vegetable market on Friday in the second blast against Shi’ite civilians in as many days, police said. The death toll rose to nearly 100 from the previous day’s coordinated string of suicide bombings and mortars in another town.

Elsewhere, in the southern city of Basra, an Iraqi police convoy was ambushed late on Thursday, killing four police officers and wounding one, said police Captain Mushtaq Khazim.

The new surge of violence before an October 15 referendum on Iraq’s Constitution has killed at least 194 people, including 13 United States service members, in the past five days.

The insurgents have vowed to wreck the referendum, whose passage is crucial to prospects for starting a withdrawal of American troops. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the country’s most-feared insurgent group, has declared “all-out war” on the Shi’ite majority that dominates Iraq’s government.

Moderate Sunni Arab leaders have urged their community to reject the Constitution, saying it will fragment Iraq and leave them weak compared to Shi’ites and Kurds.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been struggling to negotiate changes to the charter in hopes of winning Sunni Arab support, and senior US officials in Washington have said they are confident that Iraq’s draft Constitution will be approved. But those officials also have said that if the Constitution is defeated, Iraq could descend into anarchy.

Market massacre

On Friday, a car bomb exploded in a bustling vegetable market in the mostly Shi’ite city of Hillah, killing at least nine people, including three women and two children, and wounding 41, said Dr Mohammed Beirum of Hillah General hospital. The vehicle was parked when it detonated at about 9.30am in the city 95km south of Baghdad.

As Iraqi police and soldiers sealed off the Al-Sharia vegetable market, emergency workers lifted wounded victims and dead bodies into ambulances from streets covered with pools of blood and shattered vegetable stands.

In Iraq, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, and before heading to services at mosques midday on Friday, the Muslim day of worship, many Iraqis shop in their local markets.

Jawad Khazim (45), who witnessed the Hillah attack from a nearby street, said he was temporarily deafened by the explosion.

“I saw a fireball rising from the marketplace, and vegetables and human flesh flying through the air,” he said.

He condemned the insurgents for trying to kill Shi’ites and said he didn’t understand why they would target a crowded marketplace where minority Sunnis and Christians could be, too.

“Why did the insurgents do this?” Khazim said in an interview.

Balad bombings

On Thursday, three suicide attackers exploded near-simultaneous car bombs in the heart of the bustling, mainly Shi’ite town of Balad, 80km north of the capital, killing at least 99 people and wounding 150, police and hospital officials said.

Among the dead were 13 children and four women, and among the wounded were 35 children and 25 women, said Dr Khaled al-Azzawi of Balad hospital. Also among the victims were Sunnis who run some of the stands in the market, though their exact number was not known.

Apparently aimed at killing a large number of Shi’ite civilians, the string of bombings started just before sunset on Thursday when the first blast ripped through an open-air market crowded with Iraqis buying vegetables. The next bomb exploded at a bank just metres away, followed by a third on a nearby street of clothing shops.

Most of the fatalities were civilians, though the wounded included the police chief and four officers, said Dr Qassim Hatam, the director of Balad hospital.

New information about the Balad attack also emerged on Friday, when police said the insurgents had hit a police checkpoint in the city with six mortar rounds at the same time, killing one civilian. US soldiers based there returned the fire and detained an Iraqi suspect from a nearby home after finding traces of explosives on his body, the military said.

Insurgents in Iraq often have attacked forces and civilians racing to the scene of suicide car-bomb explosions with mortar or machine-gun fire.

Also on Thursday, the US military announced the deaths of five US soldiers a day earlier in a roadside bombing during combat in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, a hotbed of Iraq’s insurgency.

It was the deadliest single attack against American troops in more than a month, bringing to 1 934 the number of US service members who have died since Iraq’s war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Until Thursday, however, Balad, the site of a major US military air base, had seen few major attacks.

Critical days

In Washington, the top American commander in Iraq said on Thursday that the process of withdrawing US troops depends greatly on the results of the referendum and elections set to follow if the Constitution passes.

“The next 75 days are going to be critical,” General George Casey told the US Senate armed services committee.

But Sunni Arab success in rejecting the Constitution would set back the political process for months, prolonging Iraq’s political instability.

Sunnis make up only 20% of the population, but they could defeat the charter because of a loophole in voting rules: if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote no, the referendum fails—even if an overall majority approves. There are four provinces where Sunnis could potentially cross that margin.

Khalilzad has been shuttling between all sides, trying to secure last-minute changes to the draft, which Parliament approved on September 18 after tough negotiations.

He has met rejections from Shi’ites and Kurds on some proposed changes, and some Sunni officials said the proposals are still not enough.

Sunni leaders complain the Constitution does not emphasise Iraq’s unity and Arab character. They say its federal system—which would allow Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north to form mini-states—will leave Sunnis in a weak middle region, cheated of oil resources.—Sapa-AP

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