BAGHDAD, (AP) -Iraq’s first lady escaped unharmed Sunday from a bomb attack in downtown Baghdad that struck her motorcade, injuring four body guards.
President Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hiro Ibrahim Ahmed, was headed to the city’s central National Theater to attend a cultural festival when her motorcade was hit in the Karrada district, according to the president’s office. It was unclear whether she was the target or the attack was a random bombing.
In fighting Sunday, U.S. troops killed 18 Shiite extremists in unrelenting street battles in the capital’s Shiite militia strongholds of Sadr City, Shula and New Baghdad.
Iraqi health officials said at least 10 people — including two children — were killed in 24 hours of fighting in Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people and a stronghold for the Shiite Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is believed to be living in Iran. It was unclear whether any Shiite extremists were included in the figure because health authorities did not provide a breakdown.
In addition, the U.S. military reported Sunday that 11 al-Qaeda insurgents were killed over the weekend in central and northern Iraq, after a powerful roadside bomb killed four Marines on Friday in the deadliest attack in months in the former al-Qaeda stronghold of western Anbar province.
Amid spiraling violence, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh and U.S. spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll vowed during a news conference Sunday to maintain crackdowns.
Iraq is seeking to increase leverage on Iran, accused by the United States of financing and training Shiite militants in Iraq and of funneling lethal weapons into the country. Iranian officials have denied the allegations.
Asked about reports that some rockets made in 2007 or 2008 and seized in raids against militias were directly supplied by Iran, al-Dabbagh replied: “There is no conclusive evidence.”
A five-member Iraqi delegation returned Saturday from Tehran where they held meetings aimed at halting the suspected Iranian aid to militiamen.
Al-Dabbagh said Iraq wants friendly ties with Iran and stressed both countries share common interests.
“We can’t ignore or deny we are neighbors. We do not want to be pushed in a struggle with any country, especially Iran,” he said during the news conference.
“We are fed up with past tensions that we have paid a costly price for because some parties have pushed Iraq (in the past) to take an aggressive attitude toward Iran.”
Iran’s Fars news agency reported that Iranian negotiators told their Iraqi counterparts that as long as the U.S. carried out attacks against the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, Iran would not restart security talks with the Americans.
Driscoll said the “multinational force endorses all dialogue,” but he said Iranian involvement in destabilizing Iraq was mostly an “issue between the government of Iraq — a sovereign nation — and Iran to discuss and seek resolution.”
Al-Dabbagh said Iraq is “seizing every opportunity to establish good relations with Iran” and called the security crackdown an internal affair. “No other party, except the Iraqis, has anything to do with this issue,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling militia members for weeks as part of an Iraqi government crackdown on the fighters. The clashes have caused deep rifts among Iraq’s Shiite majority and have pulled U.S. troops into difficult urban combat.
Al-Dabbagh said the government has been largely unable to implement a $100 million project to rebuild Sadr City because of lack of security. The poor neighborhood badly needs rehabilitation of sewage, water and electricity networks.
“We continue to target Special Groups that are causing the majority of the violence,” Driscoll said about elite fighters allegedly backed by Iran.
Militia members have been blamed for firing hundreds of rockets or mortars from Sadr City into the Green Zone, the U.S.-protected area housing the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government. In the past month, more than a dozen people — including two American civilians and soldiers — have been killed inside the zone during the attacks.
In response to a question about reports that regular fighters of the Mahdi Army are increasingly joining the fight, Driscoll said: “It is difficult to say. I don’t know that for fact.”
Driscoll, meanwhile, said there was “no place for al-Qaeda” to hide in Iraq and U.S. troops were continuing to hunt them down in Diyala province and the city of Mosul, where many are believed to have fled north from Baghdad.
Increasing attacks against U.S. forces have heightened concerns that al-Qaeda in Iraq is regrouping after suffering a serious blow last year when thousands of Sunni tribesmen turned against the terrorist group, which is blamed for most of Iraq’s car bombings and suicide attacks.
The terror network announced April 19 that it was launching a one-month offensive against U.S. troops and U.S.-allied Sunnis.