Iraq agrees cabinet posts; Baghdad bombs kill 22
Iraq's leaders reached a deal on contested cabinet posts on Saturday to break months of deadlock, agreeing on a Sunni Arab defense minister to combat insurgents who have launched a blitz of bomb attacks over the past week.
Suicide bombers struck again in the heart of Baghdad, targeting a foreign civilian security convoy at a busy intersection. U.S. officials said two suicide car bombs exploded beside the convoy, killing 22 people including two Americans.
At least two of the security convoy's vehicles were reduced to smoldering wrecks, and black smoke billowed into the sky.
"When the convoy drove past, a car bomb exploded right beside it," said Mohammed Amir, a policeman at the scene. "There was severe damage to the convoy."
Since Iraq's political factions unveiled a new cabinet last week, guerrillas have mounted a wave of deadly attacks, killing more than 300 people and defying government predictions that the insurgency was crumbling.
Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq said in an Internet statement it was behind the convoy attack.
Many Iraqis say the delay in forming a government after the historic Jan. 30 elections allowed the insurgents to regroup. Even when the cabinet was sworn in last Tuesday -- more than three months after the polls -- several top posts were vacant.
Sources in the two strongest blocs in parliament, the Shi'ite Islamist-led United Iraqi Alliance and the powerful Kurdish coalition, said on Saturday agreement had been reached on filling the vacant ministries, including defense and oil.
They said Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab, would be the new defense minister while Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a Shi'ite, would run the Oil Ministry.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari confirmed a deal had been reached on five vacant cabinet posts and said it would be put to parliament for approval on Sunday. Talks are still going on to finalize the full line-up of deputy prime ministers.
Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, dominant during the rule of Saddam Hussein, was sidelined after the Jan. 30 elections as most Sunni Arabs stayed away from the polls due to calls for a boycott and fears of insurgent attacks. There are only 17 Sunni Arab lawmakers in the 275-member parliament.
Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders agreed to give important cabinet posts including the Defense Ministry to Sunni Arabs to try to defuse ethnic and sectarian tensions and undermine the insurgency, mainly fought by Sunni Arab guerrillas.
WAVE OF ATTACKS
Saturday's blast brought chaos to central Baghdad. At least 30 people were wounded. Witnesses said three children were among the dead. The road was strewn with shattered glass and wreckage.
The bomb targeted one of the distinctive convoys used by foreign civilians in Iraq, who usually travel in conspicuous sports utility vehicles protected by armed security guards.
On Friday, a suicide car bomb at a vegetable market in Suwayra, south of Baghdad, killed 31 people, the director of the emergency department at the town's hospital said. A suicide bomber also blew up his vehicle beside a police minibus in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, killing at least nine policemen.
A little known Muslim group, Jamaat Jund al-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions), claimed the Suwayra attack.
"Some of them ally with Jews and Crusaders ... They hurt Sunnis, and weave plots to destroy the Sunnis," its Internet statement said, in apparent reference to Iraqi Shi'ites.
A series of bomb blasts and ambushes in Baghdad on Thursday killed at least 24 people, and on Wednesday a suicide bomb in the northern Kurdish town of Arbil killed as many as 60.
A U.S. Marine was killed on Saturday in a roadside bomb attack near the western town of Karma. The blast raised to at least 1,217 the number of American soldiers killed in action since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Including non-combat deaths, the toll is at least 1,594.
Insurgents are also pressing foreign troops to leave by seizing foreign hostages. On Friday, Al Jazeera aired a new video showing Australian captive Douglas Wood, 63, apparently pleading for his life as two guerrillas pointed rifles at him.
Wood appeared distraught and his head had been shaved. Al Jazeera said his captors demanded that Australia begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq within 72 hours.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra would not bow to the demands of hostage takers. "The important thing is that we don't look as though we're starting to cave in and give in to demands," he told Australian radio on Saturday.
"If you give in to demands ... more people eventually will be taken hostage and further demands made, so it's important we be strong and that, for the government's part, it just continues working at trying to get Douglas out."
Iraq's government and the U.S. military say they are making progress against the insurgents. The government said on Saturday that an aide to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, had been captured in a raid west of Baghdad in April.
The aide, Ghassan al-Rawi was the leader of insurgents in the town of Rawa in western Iraq, the government said.