BAGHDAD: A series of car bomb attacks and clashes between security forces and militants around and north of Baghdad killed at least 21 civilians, officials said Sunday, amid an ongoing standoff between Iraqi forces and Al-Qaeda-linked militants west of the Iraqi capital.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised there would be no military assault on Fallujah, to spare the city more carnage, and said Sunni tribesmen would be given time to expel Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
“We want to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot,” he told Reuters in an interview, referring to the devastating assaults by U.S. forces to evict insurgents in 2004.
The deadliest blast occurred at a bus station in central Baghdad when an explosives-laden car was detonated outside, killing at least nine people and wounding 16, a police officer said. Thousands of people use the bus station every day or pass through the area. Last Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of security force recruits nearby, killing nearly two dozen.
Another parked car bomb targeted a gathering of buses and taxis in Baghdad’s northern Hurriyah neighborhood, killing four civilians and wounding 12, the same police officer said.
Shortly after sunset, fighting erupted in Baghdad’s western suburbs of Abu Ghraib as gunmen attacked a military convoy, authorities said. Army artillery shells later landed on the Sunni village of Al-Mahsna in Abu Ghraib, killing five civilians and wounding 13, police said.
Later, a suicide car bomb exploded in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu, followed minutes later by bomb hidden in a cart nearby, Mayor Shalal Abdul said. He said the blasts killed three people and wounded 27.
Medical officials confirmed the causality figures for all attacks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.
The attacks come as Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribal militias in Anbar have been battling Al-Qaeda-linked militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.
Fallujah remains in the hands of the militants and tribal gunmen opposed to the central government. Militants and tribal fighters also control part of the provincial capital, Ramadi. Sporadic clashes there and in surrounding areas continue to take place.
Thousands of families have left the area, fearing a government offensive. Clashes between militants and security forces have killed at least 60 people since the violence erupted after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the dismantling of an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
The extremist militants, emboldened by fellow fighters’ gains in the civil war in Syria, have tried to position themselves as the champions of Iraqi Sunnis angry at the Shiite-led government over what they see as efforts to marginalize them.
Some government offices in Ramadi opened Sunday under tight security and civil servants returned to work, councilman Faleh al-Issawi said. Issawi added that gunmen were still in control of some parts of Ramadi.
In a sign of U.S. concern over the situation, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk traveled to Iraq to meet with Maliki and other top Iraqi political leaders. McGurk wrapped up his trip Sunday.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that McGurk emphasized that the U.S. “will provide all necessary and appropriate assistance to the government of Iraq.” Washington has ruled out sending U.S. troops back in but recently delivered dozens of Hellfire missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces. It has promised to send more missiles as well as surveillance drones.
Violence has escalated in Iraq over the past year. Last year, the country saw the highest death toll since the worst of the country’s sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.
The U.S. Embassy also said McGurk visited Friday with members of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the militant wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose camp outside Baghdad came under rocket attack last month. The statement said the U.S. diplomat stressed the urgency of relocating the residents of Camp Hurriyah to another country.
The dissident group, which opposes Iran’s religious regime, joined forces with Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980-88 Iran- Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001, and was removed from a U.S. terrorist list last year.