Nearly simultaneous car bombs struck two areas in predominantly Shiite areas of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 16 people, as many Iraqis cheered the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, was quoted as telling the British Broadcasting Corp. that Saddam Hussein could be executed before the end of the year if an appeals panel upholds his death sentence.
Prosecutors have said Iraq’s appeals court is expected to rule by the middle of January on Saddam’s guilty verdict and death sentence for the killings of more than 140 Shiite Muslims after an assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail in 1982.
If the ruling is upheld, Iraqi officials have told The Associated Press that Iraq’s three-man presidential council is pledged to allow Saddam’s hanging to take place. The execution must be carried out within 30 days of the appeals court’s decision.
“The way I understand the law that we passed when we were in the National Assembly that the execution of the sentence should happen within a month, one month,” al-Maliki told the BBC. “I expect it to happen before the end of this year.”
A car bomb blew up outside shops in northern Baghdad’s Qahira district as noontime shoppers were gathering, said police Lt. Ali Muhsin. He said seven people were killed, 27 were wounded and seven cars were destroyed.
Around the same time, a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-rigged vehicle into crowds gathered in a commercial complex for spare parts, killing at least nine people and wounding 27 in Baghdad’s downtown Karradah district, police Col. Abbas Mohammed Salman said.
Iraqis welcomed Wednesday’s announcement of Rumsfeld’s resignation as many blamed him for policy failures and scandals that have contributed to the daily sectarian carnage that continues to wrack their nation, more than three years after the U.S. invasion.
“Rumsfeld’s resignation shows the scale of the mess the U.S. has made in Iraq,” 44-year-old Oil Ministry worker Ibrahim Ali said. “The efforts by American politicians to hide their failure are no longer working.”
Hard-line Sunni politician Hamid al-Mutlaq said Rumsfeld’s departure was evidence of the downfall of those who engineered the invasion and what he called their “evil project” in Iraq.
Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has yet to comment on Rumsfeld’s resignation, which followed a Democratic congressional triumph in midterm elections that was due in large part to U.S. voter dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.
Al-Maliki has grown increasingly critical of U.S. policies, pushing ever-harder for his government to be handed more responsibility for security by U.S.-led coalition forces.
With a special U.S. committee looking into new policy options for Iraq, many in Baghdad said they expect changes under Rumsfeld’s expected replacement, former CIA director Robert Gates.
Democrats said they will use their new clout to force a change in Iraq policy and demand that President Bush start bringing troops home, though they are divided over what exactly to propose.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett warned against a precipitous withdrawal by the U.S.-led coalition.
She said recommendations from an independent U.S. commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III would be key to determining America and Britain’s next moves.
“We are at a critical junction in which the fate of that country hangs in the balance. There is a very real risk of even greater instability and bloodshed than we’ve already seen,” she said in London.
More than 30 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country on Thursday as violence showed no sign of ebbing.
A director of Baghdad’s main morgue, Dr. Abdul-Razzaq al-Obaidi, said as many as 60 bodies were arriving each day. Many go unclaimed and are buried in a public cemetery after photographs are taken for later identification.
“We can’t keep them all this time,” al-Obaidi said.
Iraqi security forces also continue to be targeted by snipers, car bombs and kidnappers, with 39 policemen killed and 170 wounded from Nov. 3 to Nov. 9, Brig. Abdel-Karim Khalaf told reporters.
The U.S. military also released details late Wednesday of two previously unreported operations conducted over recent days, including a 90-minute firefight in northern Baghdad on Sunday in which 38 suspected Iraqi insurgents were killed and nine wounded.
In a separate report, the military said heavily armed insurgents ambushed a joint Iraqi-U.S. patrol on Tuesday near the northern town of Dugmat.
U.S. forces responded with ground troops and airstrikes, killing eight fighters, it said. One U.S. soldier was killed and three wounded in the action, it said, casualties already reported and included in the monthly tally.
In other violence, reported by police:
- Assailants stormed a primary school as classes were starting in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, killing a policeman, a guard and a student.
- A bomb hidden in a sack exploded near a crowd of street vendors in central Baghdad’s Tayarn square, killing three people and wounding 19.
- A roadside bomb struck an Iraqi police patrol near a market in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing one policeman and two civilians.
- A police colonel and his driver were shot to death along a highway in eastern Baghdad.
- Gunmen in a speeding car gunned down a reputed former member of Saddam’s Fedayeen paramilitary in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
- Two people were killed in a mortar attack on their car on Palestine street in eastern Baghdad.
The bodies of at least six apparent victims of roving sectarian death squads also were found dumped in Baghdad.
Such squads are believed to have strong links to Shiite militias sponsored by political parties whose support is crucial for the survival of al-Maliki’s shaky government.
Al-Maliki rebuffed pressure from U.S. officials dispatched over recent days in a bid to pressure al-Maliki to quickly disband Shiite militia groups and death squads, a top aide to the prime minister said.
Al-Maliki told National Intelligence Director John Negroponte there was no way that could happen this year, but indicated that was on the agenda for 2007, the aide told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah warned that his Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, would withdraw from the political process if the militias aren’t dissolved.
“We are under political pressure, and if these demands are not met we will abandon politics,” Abdullah said. “And this will leave us with only one alternative, which is carrying arms, and then it will be civil war.”