Bombers kill 67 Iraqis, cabinet in pressure
BAGHDAD - Suicide bombers killed at least 67 Iraqis on Friday in escalating violence that has cast doubts over the new government's ability to defeat insurgents.
In the deadliest blast, a suicide car bomber struck a vegetable market in a southern Iraqi town, killing at least 58 people and wounding 44, police and hospital officials said.
The attack hit the mostly Shi'ite town of Suwayra, reinforcing fears that guerrilla violence will fuel growing sectarian tensions and ignite a civil war.
Guerrillas also exerted pressure on U.S. allies in Iraq. In a new video aired on Al Jazeera, kidnappers of an Australian man demanded Australia begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 72 hours. The shaven-headed hostage was shown held at gunpoint.
In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle beside a minibus carrying policemen, killing at least nine and wounding several, local police said.
Guerrilla bombings and other attacks have killed more than 250 people since the cabinet was announced eight days ago, putting pressure on politicians who have promised stability.
Millions of Iraqis braved suicide bombs to vote in the Jan. 30 elections, expecting a new era of democracy that would end two years of suicide bombings, kidnappings and rampant crime.
But insurgents have stepped up bombings of security forces since the government was announced, defying leaders who face the daunting task of tackling violence so that Iraq can start rebuilding its shattered economy and infrastructure.
Guerrilla attacks gained momentum as politicians bickered for three months before announcing an incomplete cabinet, and the latest wave of violence has challenged the government to make good on its promise to tackle insurgents.
A series of bomb blasts and ambushes in Baghdad killed at least 24 people on Thursday. The previous day, a suicide bomb in the northern town of Arbil killed as many as 60 people, and a car bomb in Baghdad killed nine Iraqi soldiers.
Iraqi officials often blame such attacks on the elusive al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group claimed the Tikrit bombing near a checkpoint set up by Iraqi security forces.
"A lion from the martyrs' brigade attacked a group of the apostate police, who are agents of America, in the city of Tikrit ... killing many, " said a statement from Al Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq on an Islamist Web site. Its authenticity could not be verified.
In Baghdad, a resident alerted police after he saw bodies being buried. Police found the corpses of 14 men. Some of the victims, blindfolded and wearing civilian clothes and left in a garbage dump, had been shot in the head, police said on Friday.
As it tries to prevent insurgent attacks and ambushes, Iraq's new government must also try to tackle a series of kidnappings of foreigners, many of whom have been killed.
The Australian hostage, Douglas Wood, 63, was shown on Jazeera apparently pleading for his life as two masked insurgents pointed their guns at him. His head had been shaved.
Australia insists it does not negotiate with hostage takers. Last year, Canberra criticized the Philippines for withdrawing troops from Iraq to save the life of a Filipino truck driver held by Zarqawi's group.
Jazeera also said a group had kidnapped six Jordanians working in Iraq to press Jordanian companies not to work with U.S. forces. It aired a video tape showing six men holding up their passports as they sat beneath a sign carrying the name of the group, Al-Bara bin Malek Brigades.
As Iraq's new leaders try to contain the insurgency, they are struggling to resolve their own political disputes.
After the Jan. 30 elections, Sunni Arabs who dominated under Saddam were sidelined and the Shi'ites and Kurds became the new powers in Iraq.
Their leaders have promised to give Sunni Arabs a prominent role in politics, but sectarian tensions and haggling have dragged on since the partial cabinet was announced. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, an Islamist Shi'ite, has yet to name ministers for key portfolios such as defense and oil.
New tensions also erupted on Friday between Iraqi security forces and supporters of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Followers of Sadr clashed with Iraqi soldiers after Friday prayers in Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, and hours later gunmen killed two Sadr supporters in Baghdad, police said.
Sadr, who has led two major uprisings against U.S. troops in Iraq, has been keeping a low profile since an American military offensive against his Medhi Army fighters in Najaf last August.
If he decides to stir up his militiamen again, the new government could face trouble on a new front.