BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP)- Three suicide attackers exploded near-simultaneous car bombs in the heart of a bustling, mainly Shiite town, killing at least 99 people and wounding 124 amid a new surge of violence before an Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq”s constitution.
Apparently aimed at killing a large number of Shiite civilians, the string of bombings started just before sunset Thursday when the first blast ripped through an open-air market crowded with Iraqis buying vegetables. The next bomb exploded at a bank just yards (meters) away, followed by a third on a nearby street of clothing shops.
Sunni insurgents have vowed to wreck the referendum, whose passage is crucial to prospects for starting a withdrawal of American troops. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has declared "all-out war" on the Shiite majority that dominates Iraq”s government, and moderate Sunni Arab leaders called on their community to reject the constitution, saying it will fragment Iraq and leave them weak compared to Shiites and Kurds.
The U.S. ambassador has been struggling to negotiate changes to the charter in hopes of winning Sunni Arab support. Frustrating his efforts, Sunnis said U.S. troops raided the homes of two Sunni leaders on Thursday, fueling their sense of alienation in the political process.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of five U.S. soldiers Wednesday in a roadside bombing during combat in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, a hotbed of Iraq”s insurgency.
It was the deadliest single attack against American troops in more than a month, bringing to 1,934 the number of U.S. service members who have died since Iraq”s war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. About 180 people, including 13 U.S. service members, have been killed in the past four days.
Until Thursday, however, Balad, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad and the site of a major U.S. military air base, had seen few major attacks.
The blasts left streets strewn with body parts and wounded as emergency vehicles rushed in. The attackers detonated their explosives-packed cars within minutes of each other, starting at 6:45 p.m. at the Masraf Street market, then at nearby Bint al-Hassan Street, a major commercial avenue, said police Lt. Ghafil Hassan.
Most of the 99 fatalities were civilians, though among the 124 wounded were the police chief and four officers, said Dr. Qassim Hatam, the director of Balad hospital. In Washington, the top American commander in Iraq said Thursday that the process of withdrawing U.S. troops depends greatly on the results of the referendum and elections set to follow if the constitution passes.
"The next 75 days are going to be critical," Gen. George Casey told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. But Sunni Arab success in rejecting the constitution would set back the political process for months, prolonging Iraq”s political instability.
Sunnis make up only 20 percent of the population, but they could defeat the charter because of a loophole in voting rules: If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote "no," the referendum fails, even if an overall majority approves. There are four provinces where Sunnis could potentially cross that margin.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has been shuttling between all sides, trying to secure last-minute changes to the draft, which parliament approved Sept. 18 after tough negotiations.
He has met rejections from Shiites and Kurds on some proposed changes, and some Sunni officials said the proposals were still not enough.
According to Sunni officials, U.S. forces raided the Baghdad homes of Adnan al-Dulaimi and Harith al-Obeidi, senior officials in the Conference for Iraq”s People, a prominent Sunni political group.
Al-Dulaimi, 73, said soldiers in tanks and Humvees broke into his home at 2:30 a.m., put him and his family in a guest room and searched the house, arresting four of his bodyguards and confiscating weapons he said were licensed. "It was if they were attacking a castle, not the home of a normal person who advises Iraq”s interim government and has called for reconciliation and renounced sectarianism," said al-Dulaimi, an adviser to Iraq”s president on religious affairs.
Al-Dulaimi said the Americans were acting on a false tip that his bodyguards had links to insurgents. The U.S. military said it conducted several raids in neighborhoods where the leaders live but could not identify the homes involved.
Sunni leaders complain the constitution does not emphasize Iraq”s unity and Arab character. They say its federal system, which would allow Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north to form mini-states, will leave Sunnis in a weak middle region, cheated of oil resources.
Khalilzad met with the top Kurdish leaders, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, on Wednesday and conveyed three changes sought by Sunnis, said Fuad Massoum, a Kurdish member of the constitutional commission.
Massoum said the changes concern: confirming the use of Arabic along with Kurdish in the northern Kurdistan region; adding a clause stating that "Iraq is a single nation, and the constitution guarantees its unity" and allowing parliament to alter the constitution by a two-thirds vote rather than requiring a referendum. Khalilzad presented the same proposals earlier Wednesday to Shiite leaders, said Humam Hamoudi, the Shiite head of the constitutional committee.
Both Kurds and Shiites rejected the third proposal, Massoum and Hamoudi said. The Kurds want the second proposal rephrased to "federal nation," though they accept the first provision, Massoum said.
Even so, one of the main Sunni Arab parties, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that acceptance of all three changes would not be enough for some Sunni leaders. Party official Nasser al-Ani said his side put forward 12 proposals, including changes in the federal system that Shiites and Kurds have insisted cannot be altered.
"If the American ambassador revealed only three of our 12 demands, this would not be satisfactory," he said. A U.S. official confirmed that Khalilzad was seeking "tweaks" in about a half-dozen points in the draft "to maximize the public support." He said agreement was closest on the use of Arabic in Kurdistan and on "Iraq”s identity as a nation state" but would not discuss the other points.
The changes "will absolutely help, because the Sunni Arabs” main concerns have been the unity of Iraq," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion.