BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two labourers and a government official in drive-by shootings in Baghdad on Friday, the latest attacks in a surge of violence in the capital that has killed more than 180 people in the last three days.
Police said the gunmen, traveling in two cars, first opened fire on a group of men near the Shi”ite district of Sadr City as they lined up to find jobs, killing two and wounding a dozen.
Minutes later, further down the road, the same gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying officials from the transport ministry, killing one and wounding another, the police said.
The attacks followed two days of heavy bloodshed, including a dozen coordinated car bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday that killed about 150 people.
The worst of those blasts was in a Shi”ite neighbourhood of the capital and also targeted day labourers, killing more than 100 as they crowded around a vehicle desperately seeking work.
Wednesday was the deadliest day in Baghdad since the beginning of the U.S.-led war and underlined just how hard U.S. forces are finding it to maintain security in the capital and elsewhere more than 2-1/2 years after they invaded.
The campaign of attacks, many of them claimed by al Qaeda in Iraq, a group headed by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, came in response to a U.S.-Iraqi military offensive on the northern town of Tal Afar, for long a rebel stronghold.
Several thousand Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. armoured units and warplanes, launched an assault on the town, near the Syrian border, more than two weeks ago. On Friday, an Iraqi officer said 95 percent of Tal Afar had been secured.
U.S. troops were letting residents who fled the fighting return to their homes, although only on foot, witnesses said.
A top U.S. military spokesman said Tal Afar marked just the beginning of what may be a new series of U.S.-backed offensives on rebel towns and cities designed to capture or kill Zarqawi and increase security ahead of a referendum next month when Iraqis will vote on a controversial proposed constitution.
"Towns close to the Euphrates river valley, including Qaim and Haditha, are towns that we focus on. And as soon as we see (Zarqawi) trying to establish a safe haven there, we will conduct operations just like we did in Tal Afar," Major General Rick Lynch told reporters in Baghdad on Thursday.
Following Wednesday”s violence, Zarqawi issued a recorded message threatening an open war on Iraq”s majority Shi”ites, a move Iraqis fear could push the country closer toward a full-blown civil war, with sectarian conflict already common.
However, President Jalal Talabani played down the threat of warfare among Iraq”s Shi”ite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations, telling reporters at the United Nations World Summit in New York that foreigners were responsible.
"We have no war among Iraqis," Talabani said. "We have some thousands of criminals who came from outside of the country, fighting against our people, trying to kill civilians and innocent people."
Shi”ite religious leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shi”ite cleric in Iraq, also insist their community will not be drawn into a civil war.
While foreign fighters have entered the country and many are believed to be aligned to Zarqawi, there are also many Iraqi nationalist insurgents, largely from the Sunni Arab minority, who have carried out attacks on Shi”ites. Shi”ite militias have also attacked and killed Sunnis in retaliation.
Talabani and other political leaders are hoping that a draft constitution, drawn up principally by the Shi”ites and Kurds, who dominate the government, will draw the nation together and isolate guerrillas opposed to the political process.
The constitution, which some Sunni leaders say does not reflect their wishes for the country, is due to be put to a referendum on October 15. If two-thirds of voters in three or more of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote "No," the document will be rejected.
Sunni religious and political leaders have been urging members of the community to register to vote so that they can mount a "No" campaign when the time comes.
In other developments, the U.S. military said a Marine was killed by a mortar attack on a base in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Thursday, raising the number of troops to have died in Iraq since the invasion to 1,897. More than 13,000 have been wounded.
U.S. President George Bush has said troops will start to come home only once Iraqi forces are capable of handling security on their own, and has been adamant about not setting any timetable for withdrawal.
Talabani said Iraqi troops could replace some foreign units later this month, but backed away from a claim last week that 50,000 U.S. troops could withdraw by the end of the year.