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Twin car bombs rock Shiite shrine area

Times Staff Writer

Two nearly simultaneous car bombs Wednesday rocked the district containing Baghdad’s most revered Shiite Muslim shrine in an apparent attempt to escalate sectarian bloodshed and derail the latest security plan.

Iraqi police said at least seven people were killed and 27 injured in the blasts. But the U.S. military, which also responded to the attack, said four people were injured and none killed.

At least 37 Iraqis were killed or found dead in other violence across the nation Wednesday.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of four more soldiers in the last two days. That brings to at least 3,503 the number of U.S. military personnel killed since the start of the Iraq war, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.

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The car bombs exploded about half a mile from the Abu Hanifa shrine in Kadhimiya, on the west side of the Tigris River.

Iraqi security forces defused two other car bombs in the same area, said Brig. Gen. Qassim Musawi, spokesman for the U.S.-Iraqi operation targeting militants in the capital and surrounding areas. But the U.S. military announced that only one additional bomb was found, about 50 minutes after the blasts in a neighboring section of Kadhimiya.

Kathim Abdulrahman was at his ice cream shop, near a market on Zahra Square, when the first blast occurred about 11 a.m.

“I saw from my shop the explosion’s wave, shock, fire and damage,” he said. “Less than a minute later, the second explosion happened, but much closer this time. All the glass in my shop and the nearby shops was shattered.”

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Abdulrahman, who was slightly injured, said he rushed out to help victims.

“There were many wounded people, including some women,” he said by telephone from his shop, where he was clearing away debris. “I saw two burned bodies as well.”

Ambulance drivers struggled to get through the concrete barriers erected to protect the market and a nearby bus stop against such attacks, so vendors took some of the wounded to the vehicles in vegetable carts, he said.

A nurse reached by telephone at the Kadhimiya Teaching Hospital said the facility had received “many injured people, most of them young, some shoeless, in torn clothes.” At least four were critically injured, she said. She asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

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U.S. and Iraqi officials believe Sunni Arab insurgents are trying to inflame sectarian tensions with high-profile attacks against Shiite Muslim civilians. There have been signs in recent weeks that such a strategy could be working; they include a resurgence of execution-style slayings typically associated with Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated neighborhoods of southwest Baghdad.

Police in the capital recovered the bodies of at least 34 such victims Wednesday, 23 of them in west Baghdad.

Late Tuesday, gunmen killed a representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, outside the man’s home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Sheik Raheem Hassanawi, who had represented Sistani in nearby Mishkhab, was found with bullet wounds to the head and chest, police said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. command spokesman told reporters in Baghdad that it was too soon to judge the effectiveness of the security plan, launched Feb. 13. The last of five promised U.S. combat brigades and their support elements won’t be fully operational for “the next couple of weeks,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner.

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“Once they are in position, they may take another 30 to 60 days to fully establish themselves with their Iraqi counterparts and the people in those sectors,” he said.

Despite periodic increases in violence, Bergner said that the general trends were better now than in January or February. He offered no figures to support the statement.

“As we make progress, it will not be like flipping a light switch,” he said. “It will be gradual. It will be nuanced. It will be subtle. Some of it will be very difficult to detect.”

The buildup eventually will consist of 28,500 combat and support troops. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, is due to give Congress his assessment of the strategy in September. But his No. 2, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, has said even that may be too soon to tell whether it is working.

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The mounting U.S. casualty toll, which commanders had warned would accompany the troop buildup, is fueling domestic disenchantment with the war.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in bombings in east Baghdad, Diyala province and near Baiji, 125 miles north of the capital, the military said. A fourth died of injuries suffered in gunfire Tuesday in Diyala.

In other violence, a roadside bomb killed one policeman and injured three others in Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, police said.

Another bomb exploded in a manhole in the once-upscale west Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, killing one person and injuring eight, police said. A professor at the Islamic University in Adhamiya died in a hail of bullets as he left the institution in a heavily Sunni part of east Baghdad, police said.

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Gunmen in police commando uniforms stormed a Ministry of Migration and Displacement building in east Baghdad and drove off with the general manager, police said. The attack mirrored the kidnapping last week of five British contractors from a Finance Ministry building.

A Chaldean Catholic priest, identified as Hani Abdel Ahad, and five of his students also were reported missing. The six were believed to have been kidnapped as they left a church Tuesday in Suleikh, a Sunni neighborhood in north Baghdad, said Yunadim Kanna, a Christian lawmaker from the Assyrian Democratic Movement.

Their disappearance came just days after another Chaldean Catholic priest and three deacons were assassinated in the city of Mosul. Kanna dismissed any link, saying the Mosul attack was the work of of terrorists.

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Baghdad and Kirkuk contributed to this report.


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