Image: Coffee shop owner
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
The owner of a coffee shop sits in front of his store after it was destroyed in one of two bombings in downtown Baghdad on Thursday.
updated 1/19/2006 3:39:13 PM ET 2006-01-19T20:39:13

Two near-simultaneous bombings targeted a crowded downtown Baghdad coffee shop and nearby restaurant, killing at least 23 people and wounding 26, according to police and hospital officials.

The blasts occurred as the mother of abducted American reporter Jill Carroll appealed for her daughter’s release after her captors threatened to kill her if U.S. authorities don’t release all Iraqi women in military custody by Friday night.

Iraqi authorities said six of the eight detained Iraqi women are expected to be released by the U.S. military next week, but not as part of a bid to free Carroll, who was seized in Baghdad on Jan. 7. American officials declined to comment.

A foreign assessment team also released a report saying it found numerous violations and reports of fraud during the Dec. 15 parliamentary election but it did not question the final result. The International Mission for Iraqi Elections praised the ability to stage elections during a raging war and said there was an “urgent need ... for a formation of a government of true national unity.”

Iraq’s election commission prepared to announce final election results possibly as early as Friday, and the Interior Ministry said the number of troops and police on the streets would be sharply increased ahead of the announcement.

The bombing occurred on Baghdad’s Saadoun Street, the first targeting a coffee shop that killed 16 people and wounded 21, said police Lt. Bilal Mohammed. Police gave conflicting accounts as to what caused the blast, ranging from a suicide attacker wearing an explosives belt to a rigged cigarette cart with artillery shells placed inside.

Blasts occurred in same vicinity
Seconds later, a blast caused by a planted bomb rocked a nearby restaurant, killing at least seven more people and injuring five, including two women, Mohammed added.

Alaa Abid Ali, a medic at Baghdad’s Kindi Hospital, said at least 14 bodies were received at his hospital while nine were taken to Ibn al-Nafis Hospital.

Death tolls reported by police and other officials varied between 13 and 25.

Police Lt. Osama Mohammed, who gave the figure 13, said the higher figures were due to miscounting because the two explosions were within a few hundred yards.

The blasts shattered nearby shop windows and destroyed several cars. Wooden tables and chairs were strewn over the bloodstained pavement on which rescue workers treated some of the wounded. Two men wailed above the dead bodies of two men covered with bloodstained blankets outside the coffee shop.

The appeal by Carroll’s mother, Mary Beth Carroll, was made on CNN one day ahead of the kidnappers’ deadline for their demands to be met.

Al-Jazeera television on Tuesday showed the first video images of her since her capture. The report said the 20-second video gave authorities until Friday night to free the Iraqi women or they would kill the reporter.

Journalist surrounded by armed captors
New images showing the journalist surrounded by armed and masked hostage-takers were aired Thursday by Al-Jazeera. The 20 seconds of silent video also showed her talking to the camera. An editor from Al-Jazeera said it was from the same video the station had earlier aired part of.

The U.S. military has said eight Iraqi women are in military detention. An Iraqi government commission reviewing detainee cases recommended to U.S. authorities on Monday that six of them be released.

U.S. officials refused to comment Wednesday on whether any of the women were set to be released.

Image: Relatives of a victim
Mohammed Uraibi  /  AP
Relatives of a victim killed in a bomb attack arrive at the Ibn al-Nafees hospital on Thursday in Baghdad.

French journalist and former hostage Florence Aubenas, who was released in June after being held hostage for 157 days, also called on Carroll’s hostage-takers to release her.

“She came to this country to do her job as a journalist and not anything else,” Aubenas told Al-Jazeera.

The head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, Adnan al-Dulami, a Sunni Arab leader whom Carroll had been attempting to interview before she was taken, called the kidnapping un-Islamic, the Christian Science Monitor reported on its Web site.

White House tight-lipped about hostage
President Bush ignored shouted questions Wednesday about what his administration is doing to find Carroll. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said her safe return was a priority for the administration” but refused to say more “because of the sensitivity of the situation.”

David Cook, the Washington bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, told a news conference that Carroll’s work has demonstrated she is respectful of Arab culture and people, and the newspaper has shown it treats different cultures and viewpoints fairly.

American and Iraqi officials had predicted a surge of violence ahead of the announcement of the election returns. Scores of people died in violence across the country Wednesday.

Thirty people were dragged from their cars at crude checkpoints erected on unpaved roads and shot dead execution-style in farming areas in Nibaei, a town near Dujail, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, said police Lt. Qahtan al-Hashmawi.

Insurgents also opened fire on a convoy of the mobile telephone company Iraqna, killing six security guards and three drivers in western Baghdad. Two engineers, believed to be Kenyans, were missing and feared kidnapped.

Two American civilians were killed in a roadside bombing in the southern city of Basra. They worked for the Irving, Texas-based security company DynCorp and were training Iraqi police. A third American was seriously wounded in the attack, the U.S. Embassy said.

In Italy, Defense Minister Antonio Martino said his country will withdraw its troops from Iraq by the end of the year — the first official timeline for the end of the mission.

Martino told a parliamentary committee the operation “will be considered concluded at the end of the year, having definitively completed its mission.”

Italy has 2,600 troops based in the south of Iraq. The country’s mission “will gradually faze out in the course of the year, and another type of mission, substantially a civilian one,” will replace the troops, Martino said.

NBC News contributed to this report.

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