New battles as Bush defends Iraq plan

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Persistent Iraq violence that killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens more Saturday overshadowed a diplomatic offensive that saw high-profile trips by the war-torn country’s president and prime minister.
Three attacks north, west and south of Baghdad painted a grisly background to the visits and demonstrated how desperately Iraqi authorities need political support from Washington, Ankara and Tokyo.

In Samarra to the north, at least 11 people died and 20 were wounded in a two-pronged attack on the home of a senior Iraqi police commando.

A suicide bomber first blew up a vehicle, killing nine people and wounding 16, setting the scene for a roadside bomb that left two more dead and four wounded, police said.

The blasts followed the grim discovery of the bodies of eight policemen and five Shiite poultry vendors who died in separate attacks south and west of Baghdad.

The vendors’ bodies were found bound and with bullet holes in their heads in the area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death, said Abdel Hussein, who lost two nephews.

“It was a horrible sight,” he said. “Unbelievable.”

The bodies of eight policemen who had been manning a checkpoint on the road between the western city of Ramadi and the Syrian border were also found after being kidnapped one day earlier.

In Washington, President George W. Bush acknowledged the steady stream of grim images but laid the blame squarely at the feet of insurgents.

“The images we see on television are a grim reminder that the enemies of freedom in Iraq are ruthless killers with no regard for human life,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

His administration asked Japan to extend its humanitarian mission to Iraq into 2006, while Iraqi President Jalal Talabani urged Turkey to set doubts aside and help his country’s Kurds.

Talabani — who is himself a Kurd — has given repeated assurances that autonomy within a federal Iraq is the limit of Kurdish ambitions.

But Turkey, in common with other Iraqi neighbours with Kurdish minorities, worries that the Iraqi Kurds will eventually break away, fanning nationalist sentiment and threatening their own territorial integrity.

In Tokyo, a senior Japanese official was quoted by Kyodo News as saying an extension of the Japanese mission would be “inevitable” if US-led forces stayed in Iraq beyond December, when 600 Japanese troops are due to leave.

Government Spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda said that in the end, however, Tokyo would make its own decision about the future of its first military deployment to a country at war since 1945.

On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari backed Bush’s bid to shore up support for the US military effort despite a mounting casualty toll and declining public support.

The relentless violence in Iraq has begun to undermine Bush’s ratings as US losses in Iraq passed 1,700.

“This is not the time to fall back,” Jaafari insisted as the two leaders presented a united front at a news conference in Washington.

Three US marines and a sailor were still listed as missing after a suicide attack in the western city of Fallujah Thursday.

Two marines, one of them a woman, are already confirmed dead, while 13 others, 11 of them women, were wounded in the largest single day casualty toll for US servicewomen in Iraq.

Bush told his US radio audience: “Our nation’s mission in Iraq is difficult, and we can expect more tough fighting in the weeks and months ahead.”

The governor of a Kurdish province in northern Iraq offered to send Kurdish militiamen to help restore security in neighbouring areas ravaged by the persistent Sunni Arab insurgency.

“We are ready to send peshmerga members to Diyala, Salaheddin and Kirkuk provinces if we are asked to help out with the security situation,” said Dana Ahmed Majid, governor of Sulaymaniyah province.

US troops detained the father-in-law of Saddam Hussein’s former right-hand man Izzat Ibrahim Duri in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, a police official said.

The ailing Ibrahim is the most senior former regime official still at large and has a $10 million US bounty on his head.

He is accused of playing a key role in sustaining the insurgency still raging more than two years after Saddam’s fall.

Travellers were stranded at Baghdad International Airport Saturday when the British company that ensures security there staged a strike to demand payment of money owed.

Company directors were in talks with the Iraqi government regarding several months of unpaid work, but the airport was still closed at the end of the day, an Iraqi Airways official said.

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