/ 19 June 2007

Scores killed in Baghdad bombing

A suicide truck bomber killed 78 people when he rammed his vehicle into a Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad on Tuesday, just hours after the United States military deployed 10 000 soldiers in a major offensive against al-Qaeda.

The offensive around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, involving attack helicopters and armoured fighting vehicles, is partly aimed at taking down al-Qaeda car-bomb networks that cause carnage in Baghdad. It is one of the biggest military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the bombing, one witness said the bomber drove his truck into the Shi’ite Khilani mosque in Baghdad, destroying one of its walls and wrecking part of the building’s interior. The mosque’s signature turquoise dome appeared to have suffered little damage.

Police said 75 people had been killed and 130 people wounded. Rescuers dragged bodies from the mosque while the charred remains of others could be seen in burned out minibuses around a nearby traffic circle.

It was the second worst bombing in Baghdad since US and Iraqi forces launched a crackdown in February in the capital aimed at halting Iraq’s spiral into all-out sectarian civil war. A car bomb on April 18 killed 140 people near a Baghdad market.

”Iraqis in this country are being killed every day. No one takes care of them,” shouted one old man at the scene.

The explosion followed a relatively quiet period in Baghdad after a four-day curfew was imposed last week in the wake of an attack on a revered Shi’ite shrine in the city of Samarra that was blamed on al-Qaeda.

The US military said 22 militants were killed in the early hours of the offensive against al-Qaeda around Baquba. Diyala province is a stronghold of the Sunni Islamist group.

”The end state is to destroy the al-Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people,” Brigadier General Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding general, operations, 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.

”That is the number one, bottom-line, up-front, in-your-face, task and purpose.”

US military commanders said they were taking advantage of the completion of a build-up of American forces in Iraq under the Baghdad crackdown. That offensive has forced many militants to move to areas around the capital.

The statement said about 10 000 soldiers, backed by attack helicopters, close air support and armoured fighting vehicles, were taking part in Operation Arrowhead Ripper.

It did not say how long the offensive would last. But it coincides with smaller operations launched in recent days against al-Qaeda in Iraq targets around Baghdad.

”It’s certainly one of the largest since the end of ground operations in 2003,” US military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters when asked to describe the significance of the operation.

Heavy explosions

Residents in Baquba, capital of Diyala, said heavy and continual explosions had been echoing around the city since before dawn. Baquba, 65km north of Baghdad, was under total curfew, they added.

The US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and President George Bush have both called al-Qaeda ”public enemy number one” in Iraq.

US officials say the group is trying to tip Iraq into full-scale civil war with a wave of car-bomb attacks and other acts of violence.

The operation comes just days after the US military said it had completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160 000 soldiers. Nearly 28 000 additional troops have been sent to Iraq, mainly to Baghdad.

The Baquba offensive also comes less than a week after the second bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The attack destroyed the mosque’s two minarets.

A bombing at the shrine in February 2006 collapsed its famed golden dome, triggering a wave of sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Diyala is a mainly Sunni Arab province but also has significant Shi’ite and Kurdish populations.

Insurgents have tried to establish a Taliban-style rule by banning smoking, forcing young schoolgirls to wear veils and attacking restaurants and internet cafes deemed ”un-Islamic”. — Reuters