BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Bomb and mortar attacks killed at least 31 people in and near Baghdad on Saturday in violence that showed no sign of easing despite a security crackdown against al Qaeda in the capital.
U.S. forces were searching for two U.S. soldiers who went missing after an attack on Friday in which one American soldier was killed in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Yusufiya in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad.
“After hearing small arms fire and explosions in the vicinity of the checkpoint, a quick reaction force responded to the scene. Coalition forces have initiated a search operation to locate and determine the status of the soldiers,” it said.
More than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Saturday’s violence followed a vow by al Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq to avenge the death of his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. air strike last week.
In the deadliest attack, a car bomb targeting Iraqi army and police killed 11 people.
Reuters Television footage showed the blackened remains of at least six burnt-out cars. A charred body was taken on a stretcher to an ambulance. A man with blood on his face stood nearby looking stunned and smoking a cigarette.
New Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is under pressure to rein in violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, on Wednesday launched a much-trumpeted security sweep with 50,000 Iraqi forces backed by 7,000 U.S. troops to pile pressure on al Qaeda.
But the operation, mounted one day after U.S. President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad to bolster Maliki’s month-old government, has failed to stop attacks.
In more violence of the type carried out by al Qaeda, a bomb killed six people and wounded 11 in a crowded market in central Baghdad and mortar rounds killed two people and wounded 14 in another market in the Shi’ite district of Kadhimiya.
Attacks on crowded markets are a common tactic used by al Qaeda as part of what U.S. officials say is a campaign to ignite a sectarian civil war between majority Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.
In the town of Mahmudiya just south of the capital, a car bomb targeting an Iraqi army checkpoint killed seven people.
Four days into the crackdown, the Interior Ministry has not announced any arrests or other results.
As the wounded from Saturday’s blasts were being treated, state television broadcast footage of Iraqi soldiers marching to the sound of martial music, part of a government campaign to bolster the image of its security forces.
The U.S. military has said it expects al Qaeda’s new leader, who it identified as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, to use the same tactics as Zarqawi, a Sunni Arab militant who had concentrated mass attacks against Shi’ites.
On Friday, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people in a Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad. An Iraqi militant body linked with al Qaeda pledged on Friday to continue a holy war against U.S. forces until “doomsday”.