BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Police on Wednesday confirmed the kidnapping of more than 40 Shiites along a notoriously dangerous highway just north of Baghdad, as the death toll from a suicide bombing at a wedding party rose to 23, including nine children.
At least eight other people were found dead or killed in new attacks Wednesday, including one person killed in a car bomb attack on Baghdad’s central market of Shurja that also wounded five, police Lt. Ali Hassan said. He said the death toll in the market attack was likely to rise.
The abductions Tuesday near the town of Tarmiyah marked a further outbreak of sectarian violence in a region where scores were killed last month in bloody attacks and reprisal killings among formerly friendly Shiite and Sunni neighbors in the city of Balad.
Unarmed men checked identification cards and seemed to be looking for familiar faces among travelers stopped in heavy traffic, said an eyewitness, who asked to be identified only by the pseudonym Abu Omar for fear of reprisals.
Armed gunmen stood nearby during the abductions, just out of sight of U.S. soldiers who were disarming a roadside bomb further down the road, Abu Omar said. He and other Sunni travelers were allowed to travel onward after showing their ID cards, he said.
At least 40 travelers were missing and feared abducted, said an officer at the Joint Cooperation Center in the city of Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Twelve victims of Tuesday’s attack on a Shiite wedding in Baghdad later died from their injuries, adding to the 11 killed on the spot, said Dr. Qassim al-Suwaidi from the al-Sadr hospital. Another 19 were still being treated at the hospital, he said.
The attack, in which a bomber drove an explosives-rigged car into a crowd outside the bride’s home, was grimly similar to recent killings aimed at sparking Shiite retaliation and pushing Iraq toward all-out civil war, a stated goal of the al-Qaida in Iraq extremist group.
Police said U.S. and Iraqi forces on Tuesday night stormed an office in the southwestern hamlet of Ahrar belonging to the al-Sadr organization, sponsors of the feared Mahdi Army militia linked to sectarian murders and other violence. Troops were supported by U.S. air cover and arrested five followers of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Lt. Mohammed al-Shammari of the provincial police. There were no reports of casualties. The U.S. military had no immediate comment on the report.
U.S. demands for a crackdown on the militia have been a sticking point in relations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose coalition government is heavily dependent on al-Sadr’s political support.
On Tuesday, U.S. forces dismantled road blocks around the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City following an order from the prime minister. That was the latest in a series of challenges to U.S. conduct of the war designed to test Washington’s readiness to give him a greater say in securing the world’s most violent capital.
Aides to the prime minister say he hopes to expand his authority by exploiting the pressure U.S. President George W. Bush finds himself under over rising voter dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war and the rising U.S. death toll, now at 2,813.
Despite the carnage at home, al-Maliki’s government recorded progress expanding diplomatic ties, with eight countries agreeing to open Iraqi embassies in their capitals, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. Commitments have been received from South Korea, Ukraine, Denmark, Slovakia, Serbia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, and Foreign Ministry advance teams will be dispatched to make arrangements, the statement said. Iraq has also moved toward repairing a 24-year breach in formal diplomatic relations with neighboring Syria. The Syrian foreign minister is considering a visit to Baghdad this month, a Syrian official said, in what would be the first trip by a top Syrian figure since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.
Insurgents and Shiite militia groups continued attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqis who work with them. An Iraqi translator with U.S. forces, Haidar Muhsin, was shot dead late Tuesday in front of his home in Diwaniyah, the second translator killed in the southern city in recent days. An Iraqi-American linguist with the U.S. army was
abducted in Baghdad last week and remains missing.
In fresh attacks Wednesday, unknown gunmen riding in a private car shot dead policeman Izzaddin Abbas in central Baghdad as he was riding his motorcycle home, police Lt. Bilal Ali Majeed said. A clerk with the Ministry of Industry was shot and killed in northeastern Baghdad as he was driving to work, police Lt. Thayer Mahmoud said.
A policemen was also among three people shot dead in the northern city of Mosul, said Brig. Sa’eed Ahmed of the provincial Police Information Office. Mosul police had also discovered the charred body of an apparent murder victim, Ahmed said.
The bodies of three people who were shot after being blindfolded and bound at the wrists were found dumped in the capital’s eastern districts, Capt. Mohammed Abdul Ghani, of the city’s Rashad Police Station said. Scores of such bodies have been found in recent months, most believed to have been abducted and tortured by sectarian death squads.