A pair of car bombings killed at least 20 people within 24 hours here as violence convulsed the nation in the run-up to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
The wave of attacks -- which included the assassination of two high-ranking officials of the interim government as well as bombings, mortar and rocket strikes and sabotage of power facilities -- strongly suggests that insurgents are stepping up operations as the scheduled return of self-rule approaches, just as U.S. officials and their Iraqi allies have predicted.
The first car bombing took place Sunday outside the 1st Cavalry Division garrison known as Camp Cuervo in southern Baghdad. There have been more than a dozen such strikes in Iraq this month, but this was the most deadly, with 12 killed and 13 wounded, the Army said. Iraqi police managed to stop the vehicle before it crashed into the garrison’s gates, and there were no U.S. casualties, officials said, but four police officers were killed.
This morning another car bomb, apparently aimed at a convoy of SUVs of the type usually driven by foreigners, detonated on Tahrir Square, one of Baghdad’s most crowded traffic circles, killing at least eight people and wounding more than 60.
There were conflicting reports about whether a suicide bomber was involved in the attack. The blast destroyed at least a dozen cars and seriously damaged nearby apartments, injuring families inside.
As the wounded were loaded into pickups, an angry crowd gathered, and some people tried to set fire to one of the targeted vehicles.
Earlier, a blast from a rocket or mortar shook the Green Zone, the central Baghdad compound where the U.S.-led occupation administration is based, but no casualties were reported. A roadside bomb attack on the capital’s northern outskirts killed one U.S. soldier and wounded four others, officials said.
The upsurge in violence highlights the desperation of an insurgency that is “taking its last breath,” said an Iraqi police captain, Abdel Raziq Qadhem, as he surveyed the carnage from the car bomb outside the Army base. Nearby, the charred bodies of two of Raziq’s colleagues were visible inside the blackened shell of a police cruiser.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the flurry of attacks is designed to undercut the transfer of sovereignty and recent progress, including the naming of the interim government and passage of a U.N. resolution supporting the U.S. administration’s plan for a transition to an elected body in Baghdad early next year.
“It’s going to be a dangerous period, and these murderers have to be defeated,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said from Washington on “Fox News Sunday.”
The assassination Sunday of Kamal Jarah, 63, the Iraqi Education Ministry official in charge of contacts with foreign governments and the United Nations, followed Saturday’s slaying of Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, Bassam Salih Kubba. Jarah was fatally shot outside his home in the capital’s Ghazaliya district, while Salih was killed in a hail of gunfire as he drove to work.
The targeted killings appear to reflect an insurgent strategy of focusing on middle- and upper-level officials who lack the security contingents afforded to the top ministers.
During a visit Sunday to a post along the Iraqi-Iranian border, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said that the new government was discussing implementing “drastic measures” against “terrorists.”
Concrete steps that the new Iraqi government can take remain unclear, however, as much of Iraq’s array of security services remain ill trained, badly equipped and, in some cases, of suspect loyalty. Moreover, insurgents have targeted at least half a dozen police stations in recent weeks, blowing up two of them.
The weekend assassinations also raised new concerns about how Iraqis and their coalition allies can protect government functionaries and ensure that elections can be held safely in January. Unlike U.S. and foreign personnel, Iraqi lawmakers and civil servants typically do not have the luxury of living in a heavily barricaded area guarded by U.S. tanks and troops.
“It’s hard to protect an entire government,” Powell acknowledged on “Fox News Sunday.” The targeted assassinations also reflect the level of surveillance and planning that characterize many insurgent operations, officials say.
Former members of Saddam Hussein’s secret police and intelligence -- known for their ruthlessness, knowledge of Iraqi society and apparent access to large sums of money and recruits -- are widely thought to be involved in the armed opposition.
The insurgency campaign has hampered reconstruction efforts, delaying the provision of full electrical power and other services, and bogging down thinly stretched U.S.-led troops.
U.S. forces have withdrawn from one major battle zone, the largely Sunni Muslim city of Fallouja, and Shiite militiamen allied to Muqtada Sadr, a militantly anti-U.S. cleric, remain a disruptive force in Baghdad and Shiite areas to the south. Experts say there is little prospect that either of the potentially explosive situations will be resolved by June 30.
Also Sunday, a cleric was assassinated in the northern city of Kirkuk, and more clashes were reported overnight in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment.Two employees of the U.S.-funded television network Al Iraqiya were found slain in western Iraq, staff members reported Sunday, but it remained unclear whether the motive was robbery or politics.
Times staff writer McDonnell and special correspondent Khalil reported from Baghdad. Staff writer Peter Y. Hong in Munteria, Iraq, contributed to this report.