At least 11 people were killed in fresh attacks in Iraq on Monday as Britain announced it will withdraw about 800 troops from the country, roughly 10 percent of its force, by May because Iraqi security forces are becoming more capable of handling security.
“Our commitment to the coalition remains certain,” Defense Secretary John Reid told the House of Commons.
Britain had 46,000 military personnel in Iraq during combat operations in March and April 2003. That dropped to 18,000 in May 2004, and to 8,500 at the end of 2005.
At the time of the last withdrawal of British troops in October, Reid said that there were 190,000 members of Iraqi security forces trained and equipped. Now the total is 235,000, and 5,000 more joined every month, he said.
British forces operate in the south, where the population is mainly Shiite and have therefore not had to fight a Sunni insurgency like that in U.S.-patrolled areas in the north.
But British commanders have nevertheless complained about a worsening security situation since the middle of last year because of Shiite sectarian militia employing deadlier roadside bombs and infiltrating local police forces.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said it was “each nation’s prerogative and decision on how to best support the coalition effort.”
More than 200 wounded
The decision comes a day after car bombs and mortars shells ripped through teeming market streets, killing at least 58 people and wounding more than 200.
The grim scene underscored fears Sunday’s bloody assault on a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would plunge Iraq into another frenzy of sectarian killing.
On Monday, bomb blasts in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tikrit — many of them targeting Iraqi police patrols — killed at least 11 more people and wounded more than 40.
They included a U.S. soldier killed in a roadside bombing in east Baghdad, the military said. A U.S. Marine was reported killed the previous day in the western insurgent-plagued province of Anbar.
The deaths brought the number of U.S. military members killed to at least 2,308 since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said terrorists bent on igniting were taking advantage of a vacuum in authority caused by tangled negotiations to form a new government.
“The way in which this bloody act was conducted leaves us with no doubt that the terrorists have targeted this peaceful neighborhood in order to ignite civil strife and stoke the fire of civil war,” Talabani said in a statement. “So, it is the duty of the political groups to accelerate efforts to form the government, and the armed forces and security bodies should act swiftly to eliminate such crimes.
Addressing reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the anti-American cleric al-Sadr avoided blaming Sunni Muslims for the attacks and appealed for unity Monday. He instead blamed the feared terror group al-Qaida in Iraq and U.S. forces.
“Sunnis and Shiites are not responsible for such acts,” al-Sadr said. “National unity is required.”
Sunni leaders quickly condemned the attack on Baghdad’s Sadr City — named after the cleric’s father, a revered Shiite leader.
Sheik Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the Sunni Endowment, the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines, called it “a cowardly and criminal act targeting civilians.”
“There are some hands trying to add fuel to the fire for their own benefit, and the Iraqi people, Sunnis and Shiites, will be the victims,” he said on local television.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni political group, urged all parties to cooperate “in order to put an end to the bloodshed that has targeted all Iraqis of all religions and sects and to speed the formation of a national unity government that works for the security of citizens.”
Four suspected insurgents killed
Members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia captured four men dangling from electrical pylons Monday in a Baghdad Shiite slum, according to police and a member of al-Sadr’s organization, Sheik Amer al-Husseini. Police collected the bodies early Monday.
“We know nothing about their nationalities but residents reported that they were arrested yesterday by Mahdi Army,” said local police Lt. Laith Abdul-Aal. “Two of them were wearing explosive belts and two others had mortar tubes.”
Al-Husseini identified the men as three Iraqis and a Syrian.
Iraqi police manned checkpoints Monday at the main entrances to Sadr City, and armed militiamen fanned out inside the ghetto. Fearful residents hunkered down at home, and many shops were closed.
Abdel Karim al-Bahadli, 42, wept as he hobbled on crutches to survey the devastation at one of the stricken markets. He blamed the extremist Sunni Takfiri sect of terror boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
“This is not resistance (to foreign occupation) because there were no U.S. troops in the markets yesterday,” he said. “The Takfiris are only after Shiites. We will not be silent any more.”
Young Shiite residents demanded revenge.
“The politicians call upon us to be calm, but we will not be so. Enough is enough,” said Alaa Hashim, 34, who owns a neighborhood clothing store.
Iraqis had feared an attack like this one was coming, especially after al-Sadr’s fighters stormed out of the slum to take revenge on Sunni Muslims and their mosques after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra.
“After Sadr City’s reaction to the bombing of our holy shrine in Samarra, we were expecting bombing attacks,” said Amer al-Husseini, a black-turbaned cleric who serves as an aide to al-Sadr.
The attackers struck with car bombs, including a suicide driver, and mortars at the peak shopping time, destroying dozens of market stalls and vehicles as residents were buying food for their evening meals.
The coordinated nature of the attack, and its use of a suicide bomber, bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq, which has said it hoped to start a Shiite-Sunni civil conflict.
The U.S. military said Iraqi police told them at least 52 residents were killed and 78 injured. But Health Ministry official Ali Mahdi said hospital reports indicated a toll of 58 dead and 206 wounded.
The Iraqi army defused another car bomb and captured a mortar system, likely preventing an even higher death toll, the U.S. military said.
About 70 Iraqis in all were killed in violence across the country on Sunday and about 385 injured, the Health Ministry reported.
In the worst attack Monday, a roadside bomb exploded as police responded to a false report of bodies inside a store in Tikrit, Saddam’s ancestral hometown. Five policemen were killed and 15 injured in the blast, police Capt. Hakim al-Azawi said. A civilian bystander was also killed.
Later, provincial Governor Hamad Mahmoud al-Qaisi escaped assassination when a car bomb ripped through his convoy in the city 80 miles north of Baghdad, police said. Two bodyguards were injured in the blast. Another car bomb exploded in a deserted street, causing no casualties, police said.
In the afternoon, authorities imposed an indefinite driving ban in Tikrit, which was announced over mosque loudspeakers.
Three car bombs exploded in the oil rich city of Kirkuk, killing at least one policeman and injuring 13, police said. And police found the bodies of two men, who had their hands tied and were shot in the head, discarded in the sewage system of a southeastern Baghdad suburb.
Sunday’s assault on Sadr City came only minutes after Iraqi political leaders said the new parliament will convene Thursday, three days earlier than planned, as the U.S. ambassador pushed to break a stalemate over naming a unity government.
The political leaders said they would open marathon meetings Tuesday in an attempt to reach agreement on a broad-based government after Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he would be available to join the talks at any time.
Among the issues to be discussed are how many positions various blocs will get in the new government, who will fill key posts and the government’s program of action.
The first parliamentary session will take place three months after the elections and a month after the results were certified. It sets in motion a 60-day deadline for the legislature to elect a new president, approve the nomination of a prime minister and sign off on his Cabinet.