BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Truck bombs exploded on three important bridges near Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and damaging two of the spans in an apparent attempt by insurgents to paralyze road links to the Iraqi capital.
The attacks defy efforts by the U.S. military to smash car bomb cells and are the latest in a series of attacks on infrastructure around Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have deployed thousands more troops under a three-month-old security plan.
In England, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Iraq would need U.S. and British troops for another year or two.
“I think in one or two years we will be able to recruit our own army forces and say goodbye to our friends,” the president told students in a lecture at Cambridge University.
Police said suicide truck bombers struck police checkpoints on two bridges in a Shi‘ite area south of Baghdad, killing 22 people and badly damaging one bridge. They said 60 people were wounded.
An Iraqi army source said a truck bomb also hit a bridge near the town of Taji just north of Baghdad on the main highway connecting the capital with cities in the north. He said it was quickly followed by a car bomb that killed four soldiers there.
The U.S. military said the bridge was impassable for northbound traffic.
Last month, a truck bomb destroyed the Sarafiya Bridge in Baghdad. Days later a suicide car bomber blew himself up on a ramp leading to another bridge in the capital, which is bisected by the River Tigris.
Politicians from both sides of the Shi‘ite-Sunni sectarian divide have accused insurgents of trying to split the capital of seven million people along sectarian lines.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said his security forces will be ready to take control of the country by the end of this year, but Friday’s attacks illustrate the challenges ahead in trying to drag Iraq back from the brink of sectarian civil war.
A police source said eight policemen were among the dead in the attacks on the bridges south of Baghdad, but it was unclear how many casualties were caused by each blast.
Police said the first bomber damaged the old Diyala Bridge. Minutes later, a few kilometers (miles) away, another attacker detonated a truck bomb on the new Diyala Bridge.
The two bridges over the Diyala River, a tributary of the Tigris, are commonly used by Shi‘ite pilgrims on their way to holy Shi‘ite cities to the south.
In Washington, debate over funding the war moved to the Senate after Democrats in the House of Representatives defied President George W. Bush on Thursday by passing a bill that allows money to continue combat only for two or three months.
Bush vetoed a $124 billion war funding bill last week because it set a deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops.
Senators appear more willing to give Bush the $100 billion he wants at once, but it remains unclear how far they might go in setting binding “benchmarks” to measure progress in Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said on Friday there was “new reason to believe that a bipartisan consensus on Iraq is emerging”.
Bush said he would back benchmarks but he and congressional Republicans do not want to spell out actions the United States would take if Iraqi progress in securing the country falls short.
U.S. Democrats and some Republicans say Iraq’s Shi‘ite government must reach out to minority Sunni Arabs and reduce sectarian violence if it wants U.S. forces to stay.
Officials of Iraq’s most powerful Shi‘ite party said on Friday it would make key changes to its platform, in a move that will increasingly align it with Iraq’s top Shi‘ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The changes could also distance the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) from neighboring Shi‘ite Iran, where the party was formed in the 1980s to oppose the late President Saddam Hussein.
Underscoring the strain on U.S. forces as the Baghdad buildup nears its peak, one commander said he needed more troops in volatile Diyala province north of the city.
“I do not have enough soldiers right now in Diyala province to get that security situation moving,” said Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of forces in areas north of Baghdad.