The third suicide car bombing in a week rocked the Iraqi capital Tuesday, this one targeting the Turkish Embassy at a time of high tensions over the potential deployment of Turkish troops to Iraq.
The attacker failed to breach a concrete security barrier set up in front of the embassy gates and apparently managed to cause no deaths but his own. About 15 people were injured, according to hospital officials and witnesses.
The bombing came as the Bush administration, which has been eager for Turkey’s help, appeared to slow its efforts to deploy Turkish peacekeepers because of intense Iraqi opposition. L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. coordinator in Iraq, told Washington last week that the Iraqi Governing Council and the larger society were against a Turkish deployment.
“Clearly this is a sensitive issue, but we have welcomed what the Turks have done and we’re in discussions with them,” national security advisor Condoleezza Rice told reporters Tuesday. “We’re in discussion with the Iraqis about how this might work.”
The U.S. decision to talk with Turkey and Iraq came before Tuesday’s violence, which included a battle between rival Shiite Muslim factions in Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Followers of a dissident cleric clashed late Monday and before dawn Tuesday with a rival group, exchanging fire using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
U.S.-led coalition troops were called in to help Iraqi police quell the fighting, with some enforcing a cordon set up around the city and others deployed in the city center.
The embassy bombing sent a dull, resounding boom through a normally tranquil Baghdad neighborhood shortly after 3 p.m. Nearly 10 such attacks against American, allied and Iraqi targets have occurred since early August -- all of them unsolved and each adding to the burden of insecurity felt by ordinary people living in the capital.
Almost all of the bombings appear to have been aimed at the American occupation forces and those regarded as their allies.
The past week’s attacks, which killed about 20 people including the bombers, have targeted a suburban Baghdad station of the U.S.-trained Iraqi police and a downtown hotel frequented by Americans and members of Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council.
Coalition officials vowed to keep up the hunt for the assailants, saying those responsible were trying to deflect attention from the progress made in rehabilitating Iraq during the six months since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government.
“We’re not going to get blown off course” by the series of attacks, a coalition spokesman told reporters.
With helicopters juddering overhead, American troops moved in quickly to seal off the area surrounding the embassy, spreading razor-wire barricades across both ends of the short street in Baghdad’s Wazira district. The Turkish flag could still be seen flying atop the three-story building.
Damage to the structure was light, mainly confined to the windows, witnesses said, although the explosion left a black crater in the street and turned the assailant’s vehicle into a flaming hulk.
“There was only the engine left intact, and parts of his body were scattered everywhere,” said Ahmed Hashim, who rushed to the site from a nearby satellite campus of Baghdad University, where he was doing research.
The embassy was struck a week after Turkish lawmakers endorsed the deployment of peacekeepers to Iraq.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack was a continuation of the recent violence in Iraq. He gave no indication that it would cause Turkey to rethink its decision to send troops.
“We don’t think this is a terrorist action against the authorization granted by parliament. It is simply an attempt to block positive developments in Iraq,” he said.
“This shows once again that we need to establish a common fight against international terrorism,” he told reporters after an unscheduled meeting with Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of staff of the armed forces.
Under U.S. pressure, Iraq’s 24-member Governing Council has stopped short of registering formal opposition to the presence of Turkish troops, but members said there was broad agreement across the political spectrum that such a deployment would be unwise.
Many in Iraq fear their northern neighbor would use the presence of troops as a wedge to expand its influence and perhaps even seize territory.
The disagreement has been extremely awkward for the U.S.-led interim administration, which can overrule the Governing Council on any question but is trying to promote the image of Iraqi officials acting as full partners in decision-making.
The Bush administration is eager to bring in international troops to share the immense task of restoring order across the country of 24 million people, and the Americans had particularly welcomed the prospect of a sizable contingent from a Muslim country.
The U.S. pressed Turkey to contribute troops, hoping that such a deployment would encourage other nations to send peacekeepers. Both the U.S. and Turkish governments have also seen Turkey’s participation as a way to help heal the rift opened before the war, when Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member and longtime U.S. ally, refused to let U.S. troops use its territory to open a northern front.
A senior Pentagon official confirmed Tuesday that the Iraqi Governing Council’s opposition to the deployment posed a problem for the administration.
“If the IGC is against this, it would be extremely difficult for us to go forward. It goes against everything we’re trying to do in Iraq,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sources at the Pentagon and National Security Council confirmed that the NSC met at the White House on Tuesday and that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, the administration’s point man in negotiations with Turkey, attended along with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
One Turkish official, who asked not to be named, said U.S. and Turkish authorities had moved slowly on the deployment since Turkey gave its approval.
“It is understood that this is sensitive,” the official said. But he added that Iraqis had not been universally opposed to the deployment but divided on it, “which is what could be expected.”
Even so, the Turks will go “not as an occupying force, but as part of a larger mission to get Iraq back to normalcy,” the official said. He said the Turkish government had not changed its view that its participation would be beneficial to Iraq.
“Our position is that we’re trying to move forward on this,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “We’ve had some discussions with the Turks. We expect to have more. Bremer was talking to the Iraqis. And we’ll keep trying to work this out.”
The continuing strife in Baghdad and elsewhere drew an appeal from the Governing Council for immediate measures to improve security.
“We have to improve police effectiveness by providing them with more cars, radios and weapons and giving them more training,” said Sondul Chapouk, a member of the Governing Council who is from Iraq’s Turkmen minority. “We must recruit more police to serve the people and to maintain security in Iraq.”
The council also asked religious leaders to stand openly against terrorism in their Friday sermons this week. “They should condemn the terrorist acts, such as what happened today near the Turkish Embassy,” she said.
That call for calm went unheeded in Karbala, where residents said followers of militant cleric Muqtader Sadr tried to take over one of the country’s most sacred Shiite shrines, a mosque dedicated to the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
A coalition spokesman reported at least a dozen casualties, but did not break down the dead and wounded.
“The shooting went on all night,” said a Karbala man, Faez Yacoub, who fled the fighting. Another resident, Jaber Abdullah Hussein, said he had seen three dead and three dozen wounded at the main hospital.
Sadr, who has declared his intention to form his own government, told journalists in the nearby city of Najaf that the Governing Council was under the thumb of the U.S.-led interim administration.
“They are subject to an American veto, a foreign veto,” the young, black-turbaned cleric said, jabbing a finger for emphasis. “But only the Iraqi people should have veto power.”
Sadr insisted his followers did not seek a “bloody confrontation” with coalition forces, but he had this advice for the occupiers: “Leave Iraq. Soon.”
Coalition authorities have responded coolly to Sadr’s plans for a government, saying that few take him seriously. A coalition spokesman repeated Tuesday that if his followers resorted to violence, they would face heavy retribution.
Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Baghdad and John Hendren, Paul Richter and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report. Special correspondent Amberin Zaman contributed from Ankara, Turkey.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.
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