AFP: Bomb and mortar attacks tormented war-weary Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 23 people, as Iraq set the date for a security conference that could see Washington sit down with archfoes Iran and Syria. by Dave Clark
BAGHDAD, Feb 28, 2007 (AFP) – Bomb and mortar attacks tormented war-weary Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 23 people, as Iraq set the date for a security conference that could see Washington sit down with archfoes Iran and Syria.
The deadliest blast ripped through “Street Number 20”, a bustling commercial area in a mainly Shiite district in the southwest of the capital, killing at least 10 people, defence officials and state television said.
Police commandos sealed off the scene as casualties were ferried to two nearby hospitals, one of which said it had received 24 wounded.
Elsewhere, a suicide car bomber charged a police station, killing two bystanders, and guerrilla mortar teams bombarded.
An AFP tally of security force reports gave a total of 23 dead in and around the city.
These were only the latest attacks in the two weeks since US and Iraqi forces deployed thousands more troops in a large-scale plan to try to defeat the insurgency and quell fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.
“There has been a couple of weeks of reduction in the levels of kidnappings and extra-judicial killings,” said US spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox.
“But there has also been an increase in the number of car bombs and improvised explosive devices,” he added, warning that it would be months not weeks before anyone can tell whether the plan is working.
Many Shiite militia leaders have gone to ground or been arrested in raids, and on Wednesday eight Al-Qaeda militants were killed in air strikes north of the capital and six arrested, the US military said.
But the roadside booby-traps, car bombs and suicide bombers continue to claim lives daily and have begun to erode public confidence that “Operation Fardh al-Qanoon” will make them safer.
Britain said said one of its soldiers had been killed on Tuesday in an attack on his patrol in Basra, southern Iraq. His death took to 133 the number of British troops killed in Iraq since 2003.
An American soldier was also shot dead Tuesday, bringing US losses to 3,159.
Embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s latest tactic has been to call an international security conference to urge regional neighbours to put pressure on armed factions to halt the bloodshed.
On Wednesday, Iraq fixed a date of March 10 for the conference.
Maliki’s office said neighbouring countries, permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United Nations, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference had been invited to send envoys.
The United States and Syria have confirmed that they will take part in the conference — which US officials expect to be followed by a second higher-level meet in April — and Iran has said it will likely accept the invitation.
If Tehran does come to Baghdad it would be its highest level meeting with US officials in more than two years, amid tensions between the long-time foes over Iran’s nuclear programme.
It would also mark a shift by President George W. Bush’s administration, which has previously refused to sit down for direct talks with Tehran and Damascus, whom it accuses of supporting terrorism and fomenting the Iraq conflict.
In Tehran, top security official Ali Larijani told the state news agency: “We will participate in this meeting if it is in Iraq’s interest. We will do what we can do to resolve Iraq’s problems.”
Washington has not ruled out possible contacts between US envoys and their Syrian and Iranian opposite numbers at the conferences, but on Wednesday the White House insisted there was no change in its policy.
“We are not engaging in diplomatic recognition of Iran. We are not engaging in bilateral talks with Iran,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.
“There is no crack, a number of people have been characterising US participation in a regional meeting as a change in policy, it is nothing of the sort,” said Snow.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government is frustrated about the hostility between its main backer, the United States, and its key neighbour Iran, over the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions and growing regional influence.