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Car bombs hit Baghdad, Basra as violence shakes Iraq

A suicide car bomber struck the police headquarters in Basra on Tuesday, killing at least three officers and wounding 20 people amid fears over the southern city’s deteriorating security situation.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, at least seven people were killed — six in a car bombing on a shopping street in an eastern neighbourhood near a line of pensioners outside a bank, the police said. Another person died in a roadside bomb.

A roadside bomb also killed a United States soldier on Tuesday in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, the military said. The death raised to at least 3 799 members of the US military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 550km south-east of Baghdad, had been relatively peaceful for much of the war but has seen tensions rise as Shiite militias battle for control of the oil-rich area.

Major General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, Basra’s police chief, said one of the suicide bomber’s legs had been found tied to the steering wheel, and he blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq for the attack.

”It seems that al-Qaeda wants to make use of the fragile situation in the city caused by the tension among the parties and the city’s officials,” he said. ”We cannot say that there is a security vacuum, but the security measures are less strong in the day than the night. After this attack, we will increase the police patrols in the day.”

Security concerns also rose after the British military last month pulled back its troops out of the city to a nearby airport to allow Iraqi security forces to take over — a move being closely watched by the US military as it anticipates the eventual withdrawal of US forces in other areas of Iraq.

Provincial leaders north-east of Baghdad, meanwhile, pledged to press ahead with efforts to bring Shi’ites and Sunnis together after a suicide attacker struck a unity meeting of about 800 people in Baquba, killing at least 24, including the city’s police chief and other top officials.

The US military, which blamed al-Qaeda for the attack, said 37 people were wounded.

Two American soldiers were also wounded in Monday’s blast at a Shi’ite mosque in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province and a former al-Qaeda in Iraq stronghold about 56km north-east of Baghdad, according to US officials.

The brazen attack represented a major challenge to US efforts to bring together Shi’ites and Sunnis here in Diyala province, scene of some of the bitterest fighting in Iraq.

Witnesses and officials said the bomber struck when most of the victims were in the mosque courtyard cleaning their hands or drinking tea during Iftar, the daily meal in which Muslims break their sunrise-to-sunset fast during Ramadan.

AP Television News video showed piles of clothes and other debris in pools of blood and broken white plastic chairs scattered on the floor of the mosque’s entrance, with three bowls of grapes left over from the feast still sitting on a counter.

”This attack will not stop the provincial government’s efforts to reconcile the tribes and help them put aside their differences to achieve unity,” said provincial governor Raad Rashid al-Tamimi, who was wounded in the blast.

Police Major Salah al-Jurani said he believed al-Tamimi was the intended target. The dead included the governor’s driver, and Baquba’s police chief, Brigadier General Ali Dalyan, and the Diyala provincial operations chief, Brigadier General Najib al-Taie.

The violence to the north and south of the capital reflects the political and security obstacles that have slowed the progress of the Shi’ite-led government as it tries to assert control and stability so US-led troops can go home.

Friction between Iraqi and US officials also has spiked over a deadly Septermber 16 shooting involving Blackwater USA security guards in Baghdad, and the US troops’ arrest last week of an Iranian officer whom the Iraqis claim was here by official invitation.

The US military said the man is suspected of being a member of Iran’s paramilitary al-Quds Force, accused by the United States of arming Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has been one of America’s staunchest allies in Iraq, called the arrest ”illegal” and said he had met with US leaders to demand the Iranian’s release.

He said the Americans did not have the right to arrest somebody in the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq because the US had handed over security responsibilities to the Kurds.

”Arresting a person inside the Kurdish region is illegal because the security file was handed over to the Kurdish government months ago,” he said.

Talabani spoke at a news conference at the Sulaimaniyah airport before departing for New York, where he said he was to attend an international reconciliation conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Tehran closed five major border crossings with Kurdish areas to protest the detention in a move that threatens the economy of Iraq’s northern region — one of the country’s few success stories — and appears aimed at driving a wedge between Iraq and the US at a time of friction over the Blackwater shootings.

The state-owned Iran daily reported that Iranian forces have fired artillery against Kurdish guerrilla positions in Iraqi border areas — the first Iranian confirmation of the shelling.

An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesperson said a draft law that would place private security companies under the ministry’s supervision and make their personnel accountable for their actions has been submitted to a state legal committee for review.

The measure, which would also have to be approved by the Cabinet and Parliament, was the latest in a series of conflicting reactions by government officials, who also have threatened to expel Blackwater from Iraq or take the case to Iraqi courts as anger grows over the shooting deaths of 11 Iraqi civilians in the heart of Baghdad.

Blackwater, the biggest of the State Department’s three private security contractors in Iraq, has defended its actions, saying the guards were under attack by armed insurgents.

Contractors, US troops and many other foreign officials have immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, thanks to a directive issued by US occupation authorities in 2004. Blackwater’s contractors are also not subject to US military law.

But the Interior Ministry spokesperson, Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the proposed law would change that.

”This legislation will cover all aspects of these companies’ operations and bring them all under Iraqi law and the mechanisms of the Interior Ministry,” Khalaf said. ”They will be strictly accountable for all actions committed on the streets.”

A joint US-Iraqi commission also is studying the framework governing private security companies as part of its investigation of the shootings. – Sapa-AP

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