BEIRUT

Middle East

Car bombs kill 16 in Iraqi capital

Iraqi policemen search Shi'ite pilgrims as they walk to the holy city of Kerbala to mark Arbain in Baghdad's Doura District January 9, 2012. (REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)

BAGHDAD: Two car bombs exploded Monday evening in the Iraqi capital and killed at least 16 people, authorities said. At least one appeared to target Shiite pilgrims, sinking the country deeper into a new wave of sectarian violence.

The second car bomb struck near a police vehicle in the Shiite neighborhood of al-Shaab, killing three policemen and four other people, police and hospital officials said. Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb killed two Shiite pilgrims in a Baghdad suburb. The attacks were the latest in a wave of violence primarily targeting Shiites that has killed more than 90 people in less than a week.

The leaders of Iraq's rival sects have been locked in a standoff since last month, when authorities in the Shiite-dominated government called for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's arrest on terrorism charges just as the last American troops were withdrawing from the country. Al-Hashemi is Iraq's highest ranking Sunni politician.

The political crisis pits the leaders of the country's mostly ethnic- and sectarian-based party blocs against each other. Iraq's Sunni minority dominated the government under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but since he was overthrown, Shiites have controlled government.

Many fear the crisis will push Iraq toward a renewal of the large-scale sectarian warfare that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-7.

Al-Hashemi fled several weeks ago to semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where he is effectively out of reach of state security forces. He said Monday that the demand by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he be turned over for trial in Baghdad is hurting efforts to end the crisis.

Monday's attacks began with a roadside bomb blast in the morning in the Baghdad suburb of Awairij. Officials said that explosion killed two Shiite pilgrims walking to the holy Shiite city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, to commemorate Arbaeen, the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure.

The two car bombs struck in the evening. One went off in the western neighborhood of al-Muwasalat, which is largely Sunni. However, authorities say that blast, which killed nine, appeared to have targeted Shiite pilgrims also making their way to Karbala.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

The Interior Ministry, which al-Maliki controls, on Sunday formally called on the Kurdish authorities to turn the vice president over for prosecution. They have so far not agreed to do so. Al-Maliki accused al-Hashemi of running a hit squad that assassinated government officials - a charge he denies.

Al-Hashemi spoke during an interview in the Kurdish town of Qalachwalan, where he is staying as a guest of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd.

"This shows that al-Maliki lacks credibility, because at the same time he is talking about defusing tensions, he is aggravating the situation by sending this request," al-Hashemi said. "This new move ... will hurt efforts to defuse the current political tension."

Al-Hashemi repeated his concern that he cannot get a fair trial in Baghdad, where he said security forces linked to al-Maliki exert considerable influence over the justice system.

He said his security in the capital cannot be guaranteed because bodyguards assigned to protect him have been discharged and had their weapons confiscated.

"I have no protection for myself if I decided to go back to Baghdad," he said.

Instead, he wants to have the case heard in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk. There, he can get a fairer trial and his security will be ensured, he said.

Shortly before al-Hashemi's arrest warrant was issued, state-run television aired what it said were confessions by men said to be working as his bodyguards. They said they killed Baghdad police officers and officials working in the health and foreign ministries in exchange for payoffs from al-Hashemi.

Confessions by his accusers taken in Baghdad were likely coerced, he said Monday.

The hits allegedly began during the height of the war in 2006 and 2007, when widespread violence between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites pitted neighbors against neighbors and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Also Monday, an al-Qaida front group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a November bombing inside Baghdad's Green Zone, a heavily protected area in the center of the Iraqi capital. Al-Maliki has described the Green Zone bombing near parliament as an assassination attempt against him.

The claim of responsibility by the Sunni militants said the suicide attack was targeting "the head of the Iranian project in Iraq," an apparent reference to al-Maliki and the ties of Iraqi Shiites to Shiite-majority Iran. The statement said the attack failed because the car exploded prematurely.

"A hero driving a car bomb was able to penetrate all security measures in the Green Zone," said the statement in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq. "The operation was not completed due to a technical problem and the car exploded while parked at the entrance of the parliament."

 

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