Image: Iraqi boy
Yahya Ahmed  /  AP
A boy picks through the wreckage of a shop after a suicide car bomber drove into a crowed market in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Friday.
updated 8/10/2007 9:29:46 PM ET 2007-08-11T01:29:46

A car bomb killed at least eight people in a northern Kurdish area Friday, but Baghdad remained largely calm with a driving ban still in effect and thousands of Shiite pilgrims headed home.

U.S. military officials praised the performance of Iraqi security forces during the pilgrimage Thursday, which saw hundreds of thousands of Shiites march to a northern Baghdad shrine, undisturbed by any major violence.

The driving ban and curfew imposed on Baghdad for three days was to lift at dawn Saturday.

“They have done an absolutely amazing job,” said Col. John Castles, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82 Airborne Division, speaking of Iraqi forces who protected the march.

“We have been in solely a support role, in the background only. And this is something that the Iraqis planned themselves, coordinated and then executed, over a span of three or four days,” Castles said.

Castles, whose soldiers are responsible for Sadr City, the Shiite slum where many pilgrims began their walk, also said radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is believed to have returned to Iran.

A spokesman at al-Sadr’s headquarters in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, called the U.S. assertion a “baseless rumor.”

“The Americans are just trying to find out where al-Sadr is,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about al-Sadr’s closely guarded movements.

Al-Sadr, the head of a major Shiite militia called the Mahdi Army, had taken refuge in Iran earlier this year as the United States began sending more troops into Iraq. He appeared again in public in Iraq on May 25, but was last heard from inside the country on June 28.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who traveled to Turkey and Iran this week, stayed an extra day in Tehran on Friday for laser surgery to correct a distance vision problem in his right eye, according to a government official traveling with the Iraqi leader. He said the procedure was successful but refused to allow use of his name because he was not authorized to release the information.

Violence persists
Separately, two U.S. soldiers were wounded when a U.S. helicopter went down south of the capital, the military said — the second such downing in two weeks. Their injuries were not life-threatening.

The car bomb, hidden in a parked car, hit a market in a Kurdish area of Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich city 180 miles north of Baghdad.

At least eight people were killed and 45 were wounded, said police Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qader.

Tensions have increased in Kirkuk as Kurds seek to include the city in their autonomous zone in northern Iraq — a move opposed by Arabs and Turkomen. Kirkuk also has seen an increase in violence by militants believed to have fled the recent U.S. crackdown in Baghdad.

Elsewhere in northern Iraq, a suicide car bomber struck an Iraqi army patrol northeast of Mosul, killing four soldiers and wounding 14, said army Col. Fahmi Soufi.

A roadside bomb also exploded near a minibus in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing two passengers. Another civilian was killed in a drive-by shooting as he was walking elsewhere in the city, police said.

U.S. forces have claimed some recent successes in calming Baqouba, but the area remains tense.

In all, at least 55 people were killed or found dead nationwide.

U.S. chopper crashes
The American HH-60 helicopter was en route to support a planned mission when it made the forced landing in Youssifiyah, the U.S. military said. The cause was not immediately clear.

An Iraqi army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information, said the helicopter went down after hitting an electricity pole during a raid targeting an insurgent. The U.S. military did not confirm that.

Youssifiyah, just south of Baghdad, is in an area known as the triangle of death because of insurgent activity.

It was the second helicopter to go down in less than two weeks. On July 31, an AH-64 Apache helicopter went down after coming under fire in eastern Baghdad but the two crew members were safely evacuated.

The Shiite pilgrims headed home Friday a day after massing in the streets outside a golden-domed shrine in northern Baghdad to commemorate an 8th-century saint.

Only scattered violence was reported against the pilgrims.

The same festival was struck by tragedy two years ago, when an estimated 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede over a bridge.

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