At least 120 people, including five US soldiers, were killed in bomb attacks across Iraq, fuelling sectarian tensions as the country looks to form a new government.
In Iraq’s bloodiest day for months, twin suicide bombers struck the restive Sunni city of Ramadi in the west and the Shiite holy city of Karbala in the south, while a roadside bomb hit a US military patrol.
More that 200 people were also wounded in the onslaught.
Politicians said the aim was to impede setting up a government of national unity in the wake of elections for the first four-year parliament since the fall of
Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
“It’s an odious crime which shows the savagery and sectarianism of these criminals,” said Jawad al-Maliki, a top leader from Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s Dawa party, speaking of the attack in Karbala, one of Iraq’s holiest cities, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad.
” They are trying to change the results through terror,” he said in a veiled reference to complaints by Sunni-based parties of ballot-rigging in the poll.
But President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the bombings would not affect attempts to form a government of national unity.
“Those who think such terrorist attacks will influence the political play are wrong,” he said.
Shiite leaders hit out at the US-led coalition, saying it pressured Iraqi security services to keep the gloves on in the fight against Sunni insurgents.
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI), a leading party, also accused Sunni parties of playing with fire by threatening to pull out of the political process over the ballot-rigging allegations.
In Thursday’s deadliest attack, a suicide bomber killed at least 67 people and injured more than 100 when he blew himself up outside a police recruitment centre in the western city of Ramadi, hospital officials said.
Less than an hour earlier, another suicide bomber detonated his charge in the middle of a busy market area in Karbala, next to the Iman Hussein shrine, killing at least 44, mainly vendors and pilgrims, and wounding 85 others.
Ambulances rushed to ferry the dead and wounded in an all-too familiar scene of carnage. Iranian pilgrims figured among the victims, hospital officials said.
Karbala has been relatively quiet for the past year but the peace was shattered Wednesday when a car bomb exploded in the city, wounding two people.
Adding to Thursday’s mayhem, five US soldiers died when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle while on patrol south of Karbala, the US military said.
The latest casualties took the death toll for US military personnel in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to at least 2,186, according to an AFP toll based on figures from the
Three car bombs — two driven by suicide bombers — also exploded in Baghdad, but simply wounded one policeman and two Iraqi soldiers.
In other violence, four policemen were killed and four were wounded when rebels attacked two patrols with small arms fire just outside Baquba, 60 kilometres (35 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
The spike in violence — a day after another bombing attack on a Shiite funeral procession — came as Iraq awaited the final results of the December 15 elections. The electoral commission earlier indicated that Shiite-based religious parties and their Kurdish allies would be returned to power.
President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister
Tony Blair want Iraq to form a new government as quickly as possible.
They believe this would improve security and stability and ultimately enable them to start withdrawing troops later this year.
Abdul Hussein al-Hindawi, a member of the electoral commission, said a complete list of preliminary election results would be announced by Monday.
But he told AFP it would take up to another fortnight before results are fully certified with all the names of the new members of parliament.
Meanwhile, independent foreign monitors sent to Iraq to review the election will follow their own timetable.
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections is due to publish its findings of a review into the complaints within three weeks, but Hindawi said there was “no need” for the commission to wait until then before making its announcement.
Yet a spokesman for a group of 50 parties and personalities that have complained of fraud said any announcement by the commission before the independent monitors finish their work would be illegal and irrational.
In other developments, Danish Defence Minister Soeren Gade ended Thursday a three-day visit to Iraq, his ministry said.
Gade visited Danish military headquarters in the southern city of Basra, where 530 soldiers are serving under British command.