47 killed in series of blasts in south Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) — Three back-to-back explosions killed 47 people and wounded more than 70 Sunday night in a mostly Shiite neighbourhood in southern Baghdad, police said.

The first blast occurred about 7:15pm when a rocket struck an apartment building in the Zafraniyah neighbourhood, collapsing the multi-storey building, police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.

About 10 minutes later, a car bomb exploded as police and bystanders rushed to the scene, he said. A bomb strapped to a motorcycle went off in the same area minutes later, he said.

At least eight people were killed in the rocket attack and 12 in the two other blasts, he said, adding that more than 70 were wounded.

Iraqi state television said some victims might be trapped in the rubble of the apartment building. The attacks occurred after the nighttime curfew, and reporters were unable to get to the scene.

The multiple attacks appeared part of the grisly pattern of Sunni-Shiite violence which American officials consider the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability more than three years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.

US commanders are sending nearly 12,000 US and Iraqi soldiers into the capital to curb the surge of sectarian violence, which was described by the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, on Sunday as “the principal problem here.” “I believe that the sectarian violence is serious. I believe the Iraqis have overcome challenges before … and they can overcome this as well,” Khalilzad said on CNN.

Earlier Sunday, the US command announced that soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had arrested a “key terrorists cell leader” who was “directly linked” to the July 17 attack on an outdoor market in Mahmoudiya, about 30 kilometres south of Baghdad.

The statement said the arrest was made Thursday but did not identify the suspect by name. Gunmen believed to be Sunnis opened fire on shoppers and vendors in the Mahmoudiya market during last month’s attack, killing at least 51 people and wounding more than 70. Most of the victims were Shiites.

On Friday, US soldiers arrested 60 Sunni men including members of an Al Qaeda-affiliated cell that “specialises in bomb making” and carried out car bomb attacks in the capital, the US command said.

Sectarian tensions have been rising following the   February 22 bombing at a Shiite shrine in Samarra, which triggered a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes since then, seeking refuge in areas where their Muslim sect is in the majority.

Much of the violence has been blamed on sectarian factions and armed groups that target members of the rival religious community. Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, a Shiite, has promised to disband the groups, some of which are linked to figures within his own government.

On Sunday, Health Minister Ali Shemari, a member of a Shiite group said American soldiers arrested seven of his bodyguards in a surprise pre-dawn raid on his office.

“There was no legal warrant, there was no prior warning to the ministry, there was no reason to arrest them. It is a provocation,” said Shemari, a member of the movement led by Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, head of the biggest Shiite group, the Mehdi Army.

However, a US military statement said coalition forces received a tip from a resident that “15 criminals wearing Iraqi army uniforms” had kidnapped six people and taken them to the ministry of health building.

Iraqi and US soldiers searched the building and did not find any kidnap victims. But five detainees were taken in for questioning “based on their positive identification by the tipster”, said the statement without elaborating.

It was not clear if the raid was linked to the June disappearance of a Sunni provincial health official, Ali Mahdawi, who vanished after a meeting with the minister. Sunnis claimed Mahdawi was kidnapped by Shiite fighters.

Shemari denied any knowledge of Mahdawi’s disappearance and said he had interviewed him for a senior post in the ministry.

Also Sunday, politicians from several factions said Shiite and Kurdish parties are organising a bid to oust the Sunni speaker of parliament, whose comments about the insurgency and regional self-rule have angered and embarrassed key political groups.

The ouster of Mahmoud Mashhadani, which could be done by a new vote in parliament, would be the first major shake-up in the government of national unity, which took office last May. It is likely that Mashhadani would be replaced by another Sunni Arab if the move against him succeeds.

Since taking office May 20, Mashhadani has made a number of statements which offended key constituencies. He has spoken out against regional self-rule, strongly supported by Shiites and Kurds but opposed by many Sunni Arabs.

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