Insurgents unleashed a wave of car bombings across the Iraqi capital Wednesday, killing at least 14 people, despite stepped-up U.S. and Iraqi measures to protect this month’s national election. Gunmen also fired on the Baghdad office of a major Kurdish party, tried to assassinate two senior officials in the north, abducted a Japanese engineer and killed a British security contractor.
U.S. military officials put the death toll from the day’s violence at 26, but the number was based on initial field reports, and witnesses and Iraqi officials put the toll lower. Iraqi authorities later said that 14 people were killed in the bombings and that another person was killed in a drive-by shooting on the Kurdish party office.
Al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq said it carried out the first of the day’s blasts, at the Australian Embassy in the capital. A truck packed with explosives went off outside the concrete barriers in front of the embassy about 7 a.m., killing two people and wounding several others, including two Australian soldiers.
“A lion of monotheism and faith ... carried out a martyrdom operation nearby the Australian Embassy,” the group, known as al-Qaida in Iraq, said in a Web statement. The group is led by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has allied himself with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
Police station bombed
A half-hour after the embassy blast, another car bomb killed six people at a police station next to a hospital in eastern Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said.
A third car bomb struck at the main gate to an Iraqi military garrison at a disused airport in central Baghdad. An officer at the Defense Ministry said three Iraqi army troops were killed in that attack.
The U.S. military also said a car bomb detonated southwest of Baghdad International Airport, killing two Iraqi security guards.
Hours later, another car bomb went off in northern Baghdad around noon near a bank and a Shiite Muslim mosque. Iraqi police said one person was killed and another was injured in that bombing.
Elsewhere in the capital, insurgents in a car fired on a Baghdad office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, killing one of its members and wounding another, PUK officials said.
Outside the capital, insurgents killed a British security contractor and kidnapped a Japanese engineer in separate attacks around Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Two Iraqi policemen traveling with the Japanese engineer were killed, and an Iraqi colleague of the Briton also was killed, while another foreign-national apparently was taken hostage.
Maj. Gen. Wirya Maarouf, the dean of a police academy in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen opened fire on his convoy in Irbil. A bystander was killed and another was injured, police Col. Tharwat AbdulKarim said.
In the northern city of Dahuk, a roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of provincial Gov. Nejrivan Ahmed, but he was not injured, AbdulKarim said.
An Iraqi police officer was killed Wednesday in another car bombing in the largely Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad, the Polish military said.
Clashes in Mosul
Fresh clashes erupted Wednesday between U.S. troops and insurgents in the northern city of Mosul. A car bomb exploded beside a U.S. convoy in the eastern part of the city, and two Iraqis were killed when U.S. troops opened fire after the blast, witnesses said. There were no reported casualties among the Americans.
Also, two human rights leaders were killed in Kirkuk, officials said. Their bodies were found with gunshot wounds in the head and chest after they were kidnapped Tuesday, police said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had predicted a steady increase in violence in the run-up to the election, in which Iraqi voters will choose a National Assembly and provincial legislatures. Sunni Muslim insurgents have vowed to disrupt the balloting.
Despite the violence, preparations for the vote continued. Iraqi authorities Wednesday received the largest shipment of ballot boxes and other election equipment to date.
President Bush consulted Wednesday with Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, the fifth time he has consulted with senior Iraqi leaders in recent days about the elections, and the White House acknowledged the possibility that the newly elected government might seek a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“Those are issues we always discuss with the government of the country where our troops are,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “We are there. Our mission is to put Iraq on the path to democracy and to train Iraqis so they can provide for their own security.”
Carlos Valenzuela, the chief U.N. election adviser in Iraq, said the intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail this month’s balloting was “high and very serious.” But he told reporters Tuesday that only a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers would prevent this month’s national elections from going ahead.
Effort to disrupt insurgents’ plans
U.S. troops have stepped up raids across the country, arresting scores of suspected insurgents in hope of aborting plans to disrupt the ballot.
The U.S. military acknowledged Wednesday that its soldiers opened fire on a car as it approached their checkpoint, killing two civilians in the vehicle’s front seat. Six children riding in the backseat were unhurt.
It was not clear from a military statement whether the two victims were the children’s parents. “Military officials extend their condolences for this unfortunate incident,” the statement said.
Also Wednesday, an Iraqi militant group posted a video on a Web site showing gunmen killing execution-style two Iraqis said to have set up an Internet system in northern Iraq to help in the elections.
The two men are shown in the video kneeling blindfolded next to a stone wall before being shot in the head.
China warns citizens to stay away
In China, authorities warned people to avoid traveling to Iraq as diplomats tried to win the release of eight Chinese laborers who were abducted by Iraqi insurgents.
“Please don’t rashly go to Iraq, in order to avoid unforeseeable incidents,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The eight abducted Chinese, two of them teenagers, were shown in a video the insurgents released Tuesday. The Foreign Ministry said it had asked for help from Iraqi religious leaders who helped to win the release of other Chinese abducted last year.
The latest abductees are from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, which sends thousands of laborers each year to the Middle East and elsewhere.