Car bombs kill 30 in Iraq as government talks progress

news2_8_5.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — Car bombs killed 30 people in Iraq on Sunday and wounded more than 70 in one of the bloodiest spasms of violence of recent weeks as political leaders sought a deal to form a national unity government.

The southern city of Basra was quiet as British forces examined the wreck of a helicopter, apparently shot down on Saturday with the loss of up to five British military personnel.

Five Iraqis died in hours of violence after the crash as soldiers clashed with youths chanting Shiite militia slogans.

At least 21 people were killed and 52 wounded when a suicide bomber blew up a car on a crowded street in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, police and doctors said.

Iraqi and US leaders have branded such attacks Sunni Al Qaeda ploys to spark a sectarian war with Shiite Muslims.

About the same time, two cars exploded in the capital.

A suicide car bomber hit an Iraqi army patrol in the restive Sunni district of Aadhamiya, killing eight people and wounding 15. Soldiers and civilians were among the casualties.

Iraqi and US forces had conducted a sweep for Sunni guerrillas in the area on Saturday, the US military said.

Also in north Baghdad, second car bomb exploded at a busy intersection near the offices of a government-funded newspaper, killing one civilian and wounding five, police sources said.

In Karbala, the police chief told a news conference only two people had died in the bombing. However, police and medical officials who declined to be identified stood by their casualty figures.

The blast ripped into crowds going about their business at the start of the working week, close to a partially built Shiite mosque and 500 metres from the main bus station. A dozen other vehicles were burned out as a result of the explosion.

Sectarian violence

Interior ministry sources said 42 bodies had been found in the past 24 hours in the capital alone, including eight dumped near Kindi Hospital in central Baghdad. The figure is in line with levels of violence seen since sectarian bloodshed rose sharply after the bombing of a Shiite shrine on February 22.

More than 100,000 people have registered with the government as refugees since then and the number is rising, officials said.

Many others have fled homes without informing the authorities.

Sunni leaders blame pro-government Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated police for some of the sectarian killing.

Militia leaders speak of a need to respond to three years of violence by insurgents from the once-dominant Sunni minority.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabor, fighting to keep his job in a new government after criticism that he has not done enough to clean up his department, said on Sunday a general from the ministry had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in kidnappings and death squads.

He told Al Jazeera television a “terror squad” had been uncovered. It was not clear if those caught were from the army or the police force.

Sectarian bloodshed has prompted warnings Iraq is sliding towards civil war, and added urgency to efforts by political leaders to form a unity government that can reverse the trend.

Nuri Maliki, a Shiite Islamist nominated as prime minister two weeks ago after months of stalemate following December’s election, says he expects to name a Cabinet shortly. On Saturday, the Shiite vice president said he expected a deal “in the next few days.”  Many leaders were in the Kurdish capital Erbil on Sunday, to inaugurate a regional government.

Senior officials said it was unlikely Maliki would have a Cabinet ready by the time parliament next meets on Wednesday.

Maliki met a group of US congressmen who said they urged him to produce results in overcoming Iraqis’ violent divisions. “Americans are frustrated,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat, adding that “showing success in the near term [is] essential.”

The White House seems keen to start withdrawing some of the 133,000 US troops before congressional elections in November.

The US military said last week that Sunni Islamist hardliners around Al Qaeda figurehead Abu Mussab Zarqawi were stepping up car bombings and other violence around Baghdad, aimed at derailing the efforts to forge a consensus government.

Zarqawi, who issued a propaganda video last week, has in the past declared war on Shiites, who were oppressed under Saddam Hussein but now dominate the new parliament.

Iraq’s Shiite second city, Basra, was calmer on Sunday after a curfew and with a heavy security presence.

Youths chanting slogans in favour of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-occupation Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr had thrown rocks and petrol bombs at British troops cordoning off the site where the Lynx helicopter came down.

A local health service official said five Iraqis had been killed and 42 wounded in the clashes on Saturday.

Some casualties were caused by mortars, witnesses said.

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