Car bomb rocks Baghdad, killing 11
A suicide attacker detonated a massive car bomb Wednesday at a checkpoint near the British Embassy and the interim Iraqi government's headquarters in Baghdad, killing 11 people and wounding 40, including a U.S. soldier, authorities said.
It was the worst attack in the capital since the United States transferred sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government on June 28.
Hours earlier, the Philippines said it had begun withdrawing its troops from Iraq, an apparent bid to placate militants who threatened to kill a Filipino hostage if the tiny contingent was not out by July 20.
Underscoring the urgency of the Philippines' predicament, militants in Iraq said they had killed a captive Bulgarian truck driver and threatened to put another Bulgarian hostage to death in 24 hours, Al-Jazeera television reported Wednesday.
The explosion shook buildings throughout central Baghdad about 9:15 a.m. when a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives. The bomb killed four Iraqi national guardsmen and seven Iraqi civilians, the U.S. military said. Many of the civilians were waiting in line to apply for jobs, presumably with the new Iraqi government or multinational forces.
"We were thrown on the ground. Then I saw many dead people on the ground," said one witness, Alla Hassan.
Black and gray smoke billowed from the site of the blast, which left a crater two-yards wide and one-yard deep in the road. The charred remains of five cars stood by a protective blast wall that had been partially destroyed. Two other trucks and a car lay smoldering nearby. Police cars and ambulances raced to the scene, and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead.
It targeted a checkpoint leading to a parking lot in the area formerly known as the "Green Zone," the heavily protected Baghdad neighborhood housing government offices and the U.S. and British embassies, Iraqi police Col. Tawfeeq Sayer said.
"This is a naked aggression against the Iraqi people. We will bring these criminals to justice," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said as he visited the scene.
Allawi said the attack was retaliation for the government's arrest of suspected terrorists, though he offered no details on suspects. The government said Tuesday it had arrested more than 500 suspects in a police sweep of militants in Baghdad.
The blast occurred on a national holiday marking the 46th anniversary of the bloody nationalist coup that killed Iraq's last king, Faisal II.
One American soldier was slightly wounded, said Col. Mike Murray of the 1st Cavalry Division.
A Reuters driver suffered a shrapnel wound in the leg, agency spokeswoman Susan Allsopp said from London. The driver's condition was not considered serious.
The attack followed a period of relative quiet in Baghdad, but insurgents in other parts of Iraq remained active, continuing to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces and take hostages.
Kidnappers holding the Filipino, Angelo dela Cruz, said they would treat him like a prisoner of war if Manila made a good-faith move toward withdrawing its 51 troops early and would free him if the pullout was completed by July 20. The government statement Wednesday did not clarify when the pullout would be finished but appeared directed toward that demand.
"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense," the statement said. "As of today, our head count is down from 51 to 43."
The government was already set to withdraw its troops Aug. 20. A full withdrawal before then would be a major blow to the unity of U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
The statement was vague, following a pattern of unclear statements as the Philippines has tried to both save dela Cruz and avoid the impression that it's giving in.
Yet dela Cruz's family celebrated the announcement and a Philippine official in Baghdad said there was no longer any risk of him being executed.
Roy Cimatu, Manila's special envoy for the Middle East, said Wednesday that the hostage was reported "alive and well" by Philippine officials negotiating for his release.
There was no immediate U.S. response to the latest announcement, but U.S. officials had earlier expressed displeasure that Manila was even considering caving in to the kidnappers' demand, a position echoed by Australia and Iraq's new interim government.
A deadline set by the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps for the Philippines to meet its troop withdrawal demand expired Monday, but negotiations continued in Iraq through intermediaries, the Philippines said.
Another group linked to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said in a video broadcast Wednesday on Al-Jazeera that it had carried out its threat to kill a Bulgarian truck driver it was holding.
The Tawhid and Jihad group said it would kill a second Bulgarian it was holding within 24 hours if the United States did not release all Iraqi detainees.
Three men with their faces covered by black masks stood over a kneeling hostage, identified by reporters as Georgi Lazov, 30. The video contained the killing but it was not broadcast because it was too graphic, said Al-Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout. Al-Jazeera later reported the man's throat was slit.
The militant group earlier claimed responsibility for beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun-il. It is also blamed for attacks that killed 100 people ahead of the transfer of power to Iraqis last month.
Bulgaria identified the other hostage as Ivaylo Kepov. The two were kidnapped while traveling to Mosul in northern Iraq. They were last heard from June 29.
Bulgaria, which has a 480-member infantry battalion in Iraq, had sent diplomats to Iraq to try to negotiate the men's freedom.
Also, an insurgent group holding an Egyptian driver demanded Wednesday that the Saudi company he works for pull out of Iraq within 72 hours, Al-Jazeera reported. The group did not issue a specific threat.