Iraqi insurgents keep up car bomb campaign

BAGHDAD Thu Mar 15, 2007 4:24pm EDT

1 of 7. Victims walks away after a car bomb attack in Baghdad, March 15, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Namir Noor-Eldeen

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Four car bombs, two of them in Baghdad, killed 16 people in Iraq on Thursday as a U.S. commander said a security crackdown in the capital was reducing casualties from the weapon of choice of insurgents.

In the deadliest attack, a suicide car bomber targeting an Iraqi army and police checkpoint killed eight policemen and soldiers in the Karrada district of central Baghdad. The blast wounded 25 people, including two bodyguards of city mayor Sabir al-Issawi, who was unhurt, witnesses said.

South of the capital, six people died when a car bomb exploded as a bus carrying state employees passed by in a stronghold of Sunni Arab insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed Shi'ite-led government.

Another suicide car bomber killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded a civilian at an Iraqi army checkpoint in Baghdad's western Yarmouk district, while in the northern city of Mosul a car bomb killed a policeman.

While murders have fallen in Baghdad in the first month of a crackdown that has seen thousands of Iraqi and U.S. troops flood the streets, the U.S. military said car bombs, which reached a record high in February, had become its gravest concern.

But Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, said measures to block off traffic from markets and other crowded areas had reduced casualties from car bombs.

"The effects of them have gone way down," Fil told a news conference.

Fil also said the number of murders in the city had fallen to less than half and almost as low as a third of what it was before the mid-February launch of the Baghdad plan, seen by many as a last chance to avert a sectarian civil war.

"We're down to about 10 or less (a day)," he said.

About 100,000 Iraqi and U.S. forces are deployed in Baghdad under a plan to sweep neighborhoods and rid streets of Sunni Arab militants and Shi'ite militias.

SADR CITY

Since Iraqi and U.S. forces started clearing operations in the Shi'ite militia stronghold of Sadr City earlier this month, they have met no resistance from the Mehdi Army, in contrast to some "tinder box" areas in western Baghdad, Fil said.

A Pentagon report a few months ago said the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was the greatest threat to security in Iraq. The report upset Shi'ite politicians who blame al Qaeda and other Sunni groups for most of the violence.

Fil said Sadr so far was cooperating in the security drive. "I think Moqtada al-Sadr has been very clear in his guidance that the time is now right for his followers to work closely with the Iraqi security forces," Fil said.

"He's certainly been a factor in the way we've been able to go into Sadr City this early, this quickly," Fil said. "We had planned to go in later on."

Sadr City in northeast Baghdad, long a no-go area for U.S. forces, was viewed as a test of the government's determination to deal as firmly with Shi'ite militias as it does with Sunni Arab insurgents.

A new Pentagon report released on Wednesday said a struggle for power among sectarian groups was now the main feature of the war and that violence reached a new high in early 2007. The figures were compiled before the crackdown began on February 14.

"The conflict in Iraq has changed from a predominantly Sunni-led insurgency against foreign occupation to a struggle for the division of political and economic influence among sectarian groups and organised criminal activity," the Pentagon said in its quarterly report on Iraq to the U.S. Congress.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed)

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