Iraq’s largely Shiite Muslim south was jolted by more unrest Thursday when an explosion ripped through a high school, killing two students and wounding 15, while authorities announced the arrest of two Shiite members of a provincial council on charges of terrorism.
Tensions also flared over the role of private security contractors after three civilians were wounded when foreign guards contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened fire on a taxi in northern Iraq.
The explosion ripped the Faraheedi secondary school in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, police said. The blast was caused either by a bomb or a grenade, police said. Some of the city’s wealthiest families send their children to the private school, which has conducted coed classes, a rarity in Iraq.
Omar Khalaf, 17, said he was heading to pick up paperwork so he could transfer to another school when the blast occurred outside the building.
“Before we arrived, we heard a very loud boom,” Khalaf recalled Thursday night. “I saw my schoolmates’ blood on the street and panicked.”
His parents had worried that the school might be attacked because of its mixed-gender classes and its reputation as a leading Basra institution.
Basra, a major oil exporting center, has been a stage for fighting between rival Shiite militias and criminal gangs intent on increasing their power.
The violence has escalated since British soldiers moved out of the city to a nearby air base last month. The city’s police chief said this month that Islamic extremists were attacking women.
In another troubled southern region, police arrested two members of the Qadisiya provincial council in connection with killings and alleged terrorist activities, Iraqi officials said. The men belong to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement.
Mohammed Abed Hassan was detained in the provincial government building and Haidar Hamza was arrested at his home, said Qadisiya government spokesman Fadel Mahna.
Qadisiya’s previous governor, who was a member of the Badr Organization, a rival of Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, was killed in an August bombing. Dhia Shuber, the current governor, declined to say whether the jailed officials were suspected of involvement in the slaying of his predecessor.
Salem Ahmed, a Sadr spokesman in Qadisiya province’s capital, Diwaniya, denounced the charges as false and politically motivated.
Diwaniya has been roiled by violence since the spring. But residents believe that some people who claimed allegiance to the Mahdi Army have formed their own groups as a cover for criminal activities.
Meanwhile, three Iraqis were wounded when security contractors in a convoy opened fire on a taxi in the town of Qara Anjir, east of the northern city of Kirkuk, police said.
A private security team with the British-owned company Erinys Iraq Ltd. fired warning shots after the vehicle approached at a high speed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement. The incident was under investigation, it said.
Occupants of four large vehicles with tinted windows opened fire on the taxi, witnesses said. A sign on one of the vehicles told drivers to stay more than 300 feet away or risk death, they said.
Qara Anjir’s police chief, Col. Othman Abdullah, said the contractors did not stop after shooting the civilians.
“These security companies are killing Iraqis in cold blood,” said witness Razgar Fatih. “We demand the Iraqi government to stop these inhumane violations all over Iraq. These companies must be put on trial.”
Tensions have risen over the presence of foreign security contractors after as many as 17 Iraqis were shot to death Sept. 16 by bodyguards employed by the security firm Blackwater USA.
Two Iraqis were killed in Baghdad on Oct. 9 by employees of the Australian firm Unity Resources Group.
The U.S. military reported that an American soldier was killed and three were wounded Wednesday when a bomb exploded near a vehicle in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, at least 3,830 American military personnel have been killed, according to icasualties.org.
Times staff writers Usama Redha, Saif Hameed and Said Rifai, and special correspondents in Basra, Kirkuk and Hillah contributed to this report.