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Iraqi militants target holiday shoppers

Monday, October 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Militants targeted police recruits and shoppers rounding up last-minute sweets and delicacies Sunday for a feast to mark the end of the Ramadan holy month, the highlight of the Muslim year. At least 44 Iraqis were reported killed across the country.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of a Marine and four soldiers, raising to 83 the number of American servicemembers killed in October -- the highest monthly toll this year. The pace of U.S. deaths could make October the deadliest month in two years.

Three soldiers were killed Sunday, two by small arms fire west of the capital and one by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad, the military said. On Saturday, a Marine was killed during combat in restive Anbar province and another soldier died in fighting in Salahuddin province.

"There will be no holiday in Iraq," said Abu Marwa, a 46-year-old Sunni Muslim father of three who owns a mobile phone shop in the capital. "Anyone who says otherwise is a liar."

In Sunday's bloodiest attack, gunmen in five sedans ambushed a convoy of buses carrying police recruits near the city of Baqouba 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 15 and wounding 25 others, said provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Ghassan al-Bawi. The recruits were returning home after an induction ceremony at a police base south of Baqouba.

A series of bombs also ripped through a Baghdad market and bakery packed with holiday shoppers, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens, police said. The attack came a day after a massive bicycle-bomb and mortar attack on an outdoor market killed 19 and wounded scores in Mahmoudiyah, just south of the capital.

The Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement blaming Shiite militiamen for the attack in Mahmoudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. The Sunni organization claimed Shiite militiamen had killed 1,000 residents in the town since the start of the year.

The Bush administration has been wrestling to find new tactics to contain the bloodshed ahead of the U.S. midterm elections as lawmakers from both parties expressed wavering confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to come to grips with the rising bloodshed.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that pressuring al-Maliki may not work because he does not have much clout.

"We keep saying, 'Go to your Shiites and get them straightened out, or the Sunnis, or divide the oil.' And al-Maliki is saying, 'There isn't any group here that wants to talk about those things,"' Lugar said.

Bush stood firm in his support for al-Maliki, saying he "has got what it takes to lead a unity government." But the president noted the urgency the new government faces to stop the killing.

"I'm patient. I'm not patient forever, and I'm not patient with dawdling," Bush said. "But I recognize the degree of difficulty of the task, and therefore, say to the American people, we won't cut and run."

The outcome of a White House meeting Saturday among Bush and his top security and military officials could become clearer early next week when Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, are scheduled to conduct an unusual joint news conference in Baghdad.

The Bush administration took issue with a report in The New York Times on Sunday that said Casey and Khalilzad were working on a plan that would outline milestones for disarming militias and meeting other political and economic goals.

The report said the blueprint, to be presented to al-Maliki by the end of this year, would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops. The White House said the article was not accurate, and the administration was constantly developing new tactics to help the Iraqi government sustain and defend itself and govern.

In all Sunday, at least 44 Iraqis were killed or their bodies were founded dumped along roads or in the Tigris River. While the number was not high by the grim standards of the more than 3 1/2-year war, the timing and targets revealed a brutal disregard for the sanctity and meaning of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which is to Muslims what Christmas is to Christians.

After fasting from dawn to dusk for a month to become closer to God, the holiday is a time when families and friends gather for sumptuous meals and children are given new clothes and toys. Muslims also traditionally visit the graves of loved ones.

"I don't think my family will go out and visit relatives this holiday," said Hasnah Kadhim, a 54-year-old Shiite homemaker and mother of four. "There are too many explosions."

Symbolic, perhaps, of Iraq's deepening sectarian split, only Sunnis are celebrating the start of the Eid holiday on Monday. The country's majority Shiites begin the three-day festival Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on which senior cleric they follow.

"Things are getting worse every day in Baghdad," said Abu Marwa, the Baghdad storekeeper. "So, it's logical that today will be better than tomorrow. That's why I have no plans for the holiday."

Sunday's killings raised to at least 950 the number of Iraqis who have died in war-related violence this month, an average of more than 40 a day. The toll is on course to make October the deadliest month for Iraqis since April 2005, when The Associated Press began tracking the deaths.

Until this month, the daily average had been about 27. The AP count includes civilians, government officials and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported.

The United Nations has said at least 100 Iraqis are now killed daily.


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