Car bomb hits holy city as Iraq war rages on

Bombers and gunmen launched bloody attacks in several Iraqi cities on Wednesday, killing more than 20 people on the day Britain and Denmark announced they would begin withdrawing their troops.

In the worst single assault, a suicide car bomber struck in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, detonating explosives as a police patrol stopped him from entering the old city home to the revered Imam Ali Mausoleum.

Najaf’s governor, Assaad Abu Gilel, said seven police, three women and three children were killed in the blast, which ripped apart the bomber’s Chevrolet Caprice and showered deadly shrapnel down a busy street.

“This was a terrorist operation. The police checkpoint prevented the car from entering the old city, so the terrorist blew himself on the spot,” the governor said.

A medic said the city’s Al-Hakim hospital was treating 34 wounded.

Najaf is an almost entirely Shi’ite city and security is controlled by local Iraqi units rather than United States-led forces. It has been spared the worst of the sectarian war raging elsewhere in central Iraq.

Nevertheless, it has been attacked by Sunni extremists bent on provoking greater conflict and has seen killings linked to Shi’ite political in-fighting.

In Baghdad, Iraqi and US forces are carrying out a large-scale security operation to quell a year-long bout of bloodletting between rival Sunni and Shi’ite factions.

Brigadier General Qassim Atta Al-Mussawi, spokesperson for the operation, said Iraqi and US forces have killed 42 “terrorists” and arrested 246 others in the week since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki officially launched the plan.

He said eight foreign Arab nationals had also been detained during sweeps of the capital and that six Iraqi soldiers had died in the operation so far.

Twenty-three others, including one officer, had been wounded and six army vehicles had suffered severe damage, Mussawi said.

Despite the plan, however, violence continued in Baghdad.

A tanker truck carrying chlorine exploded in the west of the city, killing two people, wounding seven and leaving 35 others sick form the effects of the toxic gas, security and medical sources said.

The attack was the second in two days involving a tanker designed to carry the chlorine to water treatment facilities and appeared to confirm a new tactic by insurgents fighting in Iraq’s bitter sectarian war.

Meanwhile, militia fighters fired mortars at the central Baghdad district of Bayaa, killing three civilians and wounding 10 more, while the bodies of six murder victims were discovered in the Ghazaliya neighbourhood, police said.

A car bomb also exploded in Bayaa, killing at least two bystanders, and a roadside booby-trap detonated next to a police patrol, killing a civilian.

In the southern province of Muthanna, Mohammed Hanun, the deputy head of the provincial council, was shot dead, a security official said.

In the flashpoint northern city of Kirkuk, a hub of Iraq’s oil industry that is disputed by Kurds and Arabs, a car bomb and two booby-traps exploded in Kurdish areas, wounding 19 people police Captain Imad Jassim said.

The US is in the process of sending 21 500 extra troops to Iraq to boost the size of its force to more than 160 000 to support the Baghdad security plan.

But in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that British troop numbers in southern Iraq would be reduced from 7 100 to 5 500.

And Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Copenhagen that Denmark will withdraw all of its 460 troops stationed in Iraq in August.—AFP

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