BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – A suicide car bomber killed at least 10 Iraqis in an attack near government buildings in Baghdad on Monday, police said, raising this week”s death toll from violence in and around the Iraqi capital to 36.
U.S. forces and the Iraqi government tried on Monday to reach out to moderates in Iraq, especially in the Sunni minority, by beginning to release 1,000 detainees at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week.
The first 500 prisoners were driven out of the prison on Iraqi public buses on the outskirts of Baghdad on Monday. The rest will be freed later this week, the U.S. military said.
Arab governments often pardon nonviolent offenders during Ramadan, but the move also appeared to be part of the Iraqi government”s effort to persuade citizens to vote in the Oct. 15 national referendum on Iraq”s draft constitution, especially the Sunni minority.
Approval of the draft constitution would be an important step in Iraq”s democratic transformation. But many Sunni leaders and insurgents are calling for a boycott or a "no" vote in the referendum, saying the draft document would leave Iraq”s minority Sunnis with far less power than the country”s Kurds and majority Shiites.
If two-thirds of any three provinces vote "no" in the referendum, the constitution would have to be rewritten and Iraq”s parliament dissolved and replaced in another election.
The suicide car bomb attack at a police checkpoint guarding Iraq”s oil ministry, irrigation ministry and national Police Academy occurred as Iraqi employees were arriving at work Monday morning. The blast killed at least seven policemen and three government workers, and wounded 14 policemen and 11 employees, said police Capt. Nabil Abdel Qadir.
A private bus carrying Oil Ministry employees to the checkpoint was damaged, Qadir said. Government workers often are searched at the checkpoint before they are allowed to walk to their offices about 100 yards away.
On Sunday, at least 24 Iraqis were killed during a day of stepped-up violence.
Gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ambushed an Iraqi patrol in an eastern Baghdad slum, and nearby U.S. forces joined the 90-minute gunbattle, killing as many as eight of the attackers in the first significant violence in the neighborhood in nearly a year.
Elsewhere in Baghdad on Sunday, armed men pulled off a daring armored car robbery, killing two guards and escaping with $850,000, and a suicide car bomber slammed into a convoy carrying Interior Ministry commandos, killing seven of them and two civilians.
South of the capital, two separate bicycle bombings in town markets killed at least seven people and wounded dozens Sunday.
The ominous resurgence of violence in the poor Sadr City region began about 1:30 a.m. when an Iraqi patrol searching for three insurgents came under attack. U.S. forces in the neighborhood joined the battle and reported killing between five and eight of the attackers. Iraqi police said eight were killed.
"I am concerned about the events early this morning, but I do not believe this action reflects a pattern of change leading to more violence," said Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of U.S. forces in east Baghdad.
Al-Sadr”s militia, the al-Mahdi Army, was a repeated problem for American forces until a truce was negotiated about a year ago that allowed some U.S. troops to pull out of Sadr City to join the November assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of the capital.
Before the truce, al-Sadr”s forces had led unsuccessful but bloody uprisings against coalition forces in Kut and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, all south of Baghdad.
With the referendum on Iraq”s new constitution less than three weeks away, violence in the poor Shiite district could deepen opposition among al-Sadr”s supporters who are bucking mainstream Shiite support for the constitution.
Shiite unity has been seen as critical for passage of the basic law, which minority Sunni Muslims by and large oppose.
A statement read to reporters by an official with al-Sadr”s office accused U.S. forces of trying to draw them into a battle "aimed at destroying Iraqi towns, particularly those in pro-Sadr areas and …. to prevent al-Sadr followers from voting" in the referendum.
The two bicycle bombs hit marketplaces in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, where one person was killed and 48 wounded. The second, more deadly bomb went off in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. It killed at least six and wounded 17, including the city police chief, according to police Capt. Muthanna Khalid Ali.
Police also reported finding at least seven bodies in four separate locations in Baghdad — six men who had been bound and shot, including one identified as a policeman, and a woman in her 20s who appeared to have been strangled and tortured.
Authorities said assailants kidnapped a Baghdad school principal on his way to work, and a mortar shell targeting a western Baghdad Iraqi army checkpoint wounded four Iraqi soldiers. In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, three mortar shells landed in a residential district. One shell hit a house, killing seven members of one family, including children, according to police Capt. Laith Muhammed.
A U.S. soldier also died Sunday and two others were injured when their vehicle rolled over while on patrol near the Jordanian border, the military reported. The death raised to 1,914 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave no ground in the continuing dispute with Iraqi officials in the southern oil hub of Basra, saying Sunday an arrest warrant against two British soldiers had no legal standing. "We will do whatever is necessary to protect our troops in any situation," Blair told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Basra authorities issued the warrants after the two soldiers, working undercover, were arrested Sept. 19, prompting rioting when British armor surrounded the prison where the soldiers were detained. That night the armored vehicles crashed through the prison wall and freed the men. British authorities said they were in the hands of militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, not the police.
In the meantime, Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili has demanded Britain apologize for the incident, in which five Iraqis reportedly died. He also said Britain must pay compensation to victims, and he ordered government officials to end cooperation with the British.