41 die in Iraq attacks

BAGHDAD (AP) — A string of deadly attacks ripped through the Iraqi capital on Sunday, killing at least 26 people and wounding nearly 70, police said. Six small Shiite shrines also were damaged in a series of blasts around the Baqouba, a mixed Sunni Arab-Shiite region where sectarian tensions are running high.

Elsewhere in Iraq, 15 people died in other attacks, including two British soldiers who were killed in a roadside bomb attack in southern Iraq on Saturday night.

Baghdad’s deadliest attack on Sunday involved two suicide car bombs that exploded near a main checkpoint on a four-lane road leading to Baghdad’s international airport, killing at least 14 Iraqis and wounding six. The other 12 Iraqis were killed by four roadside bombs, three targeting Iraqi police patrols and one that exploded in an open market.

The surge of violence occurred as Iraq’s parliament met in Baghdad, and Prime Minister-designate Jawad   Maliki met privately with politicians in an effort to form a Cabinet for a new national unity government — one the Americans hope can help reduce sectarian violence and one day make it possible for US forces to withdraw from Iraq.

His effort was set back Sunday when a member of an influential Shiite alliance bloc threatened to unilaterally form a new government, if rival groups did not scale back their demands for Cabinet ministries. At the same time, Sunni Arabs threatened to withdraw entirely from the political process.

Maliki faces a May 22 constitutional deadline to form the Cabinet.

The attacks on the Shiite shrines near Baqouba began about 7:15am Saturday when one or more bombs exploded inside the Tameem Shrine, according to US military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson.

Other attacks occurred throughout the day at five other shrines east of Baqouba, capital of the religiously mixed Diyala province 55 kilometres northeast of Baghdad and one of the flash points of sectarian tensions.

“These are terrorist attacks meant to divide Iraq’s Shiites and Sunni Arabs, but if God is willing, they will not succeed,” said Mohammed Hussein, 45, a businessman in Baqouba.

The shrine attacks could have significant repercussions — particularly in the Baqouba area, a mixed Sunni Arab-Shiite region where sectarian tensions are running high.

On February 22, bombs heavily damaged the Golden Dome in Samarra, which holds the tomb of Imam Jabir’s grandfather.

That attack triggered a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis, dramatically escalating sectarian tension and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

“Such acts anger God and hurt the feeling of all honest Iraqis,” Shiite cleric Adnan Rubaie said in Baqouba on Sunday. “The goal is clear — to ignite a civil strife.

“God’s curse on everybody who tries to create sedition in this country,” he said in a telephone interview.

Elsewhere, at 11:45pm Saturday, a roadside bomb killed two British soldiers as they patrolled in their armoured vehicle near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, Britain’s ministry of defence said. A third soldier was wounded. The deaths raised to 111 the number of British service members who have died since the Iraq war began in 2003.

In other violence reported by police in Iraq on Sunday:

— A suicide bomber rammed into a US military convoy, killing two Iraqi bystanders, and wounding nine in a neighbourhood of Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. No US casualties were immediate reported.

— Fighting between insurgents and police in Mosul killed one policeman and wounded three officers and a militant, said Mosul police chief Wathiq Mohammad.

— A roadside bomb exploded next to a convoy of bodyguards for Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, killing three and injuring another three, said Kamal Kirkukly, an official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party. It happened about 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.

— Gunmen killed two Shiite workers in a bakery in Baghdad.

— Suspected insurgents wearing police uniforms kidnapped five Iraqis, four of them brothers, from two homes in Karbala, 80 kilometres south of Baghdad. Police also found the bodies of five Iraqis who apparently had been kidnapped and killed by death squads.

— The handcuffed bodies of four men who had been shot through the head were found in Baghdad.

— A drive-by shooting killed a Shiite taxi driver in southwestern Baghdad.

— Four insurgents were killed in a gunbattle with Iraqi police during search operations in Dora, one of Baghdad’s most violent neighbourhoods.

Iraqi lawmakers have been struggling for months to set up the new national unity government, which they hope will calm sectarian and ethnic tensions and undermine the insurgency. But negotiations have been progressing at a glacial pace, leading some lawmakers to complain that the process was being hampered by self-interest and sectarianism.

As 275-member parliament convened Sunday, Bahaa Araji, a lawmaker loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, denounced what he said was continued US meddling in the formation of the Cabinet and he set a deadline of two days before the 130 alliance deputies unilaterally forms their own Cabinet.

Sunni lawmakers issued their own threat, with one member of the three-party Sunni Arab coalition that holds 44 parliament seats threatening to leave the talks and the government.

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