BAGHDAD (Reuters)- A suicide car bomber attacked an elite Iraqi police unit in Baghdad on Sunday and killed 13 people in the worst of several outbursts of violence to hit the country.
Iraqi police said the car bomber targeted a patrol of specialist police commandos as they were traveling on a highway in the east of the capital. All those killed were from the commando unit and 10 others were wounded, police said.
The bomb followed clashes overnight between U.S. troops and Shi”ite militiamen loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the eastern Baghdad district of Sadr City. Police said eight militia fighters were killed and five wounded in the fighting.
South of the capital, in the city of Hilla, a bomber on a bicycle rode into a crowded fruit and vegetable market and blew himself up, killing four, including a woman and child, and wounding 48, police said.
The string of attacks comes three weeks before Iraq holds a referendum on a new draft constitution and amid a general increase in unrest both in central areas and in the southern city of Basra, where Shi”ite militia have fought British troops.
The U.S. military has said it expects a surge in violence in the run-up to the referendum, set for October 15, with Iraqis strongly divided over a document that was supposed to unite them and lay the foundations for a more stable future.
In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, more than 1,000 people marched to protest against the constitution, which they say will divide Iraq along sectarian lines by giving too much autonomy to Kurds in the north and pro-Iranian Shi”ites in the south.
The crowd in Ramadi was largely made up of Sunni Arabs, whose leaders are strongly opposed to the constitution, but also included Shi”ite supporters of Sadr, a nationalist young cleric who heads a militia called the Mehdi Army.
The march followed a rally in Basra on Saturday at which several thousand Shi”ites gathered in support of the constitution, which was largely drawn up by the Shi”ite- and Kurdish-led government over Sunni Arab objections.
Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq”s population but who dominated the country under Saddam Hussein and before, fear the new charter will allow Shi”ites and Kurds to form breakaway regions in the north and the south, where Iraq”s vast oil reserves lie, leaving Sunnis with no resources.
More broadly, they fear the break-up of the entire Iraqi nation, with its religious Shi”ite leaders increasingly allied to Iran and independence-minded Kurds in the north ultimately longing for the creation of a separate Kurdish state.
Politicking ahead of the referendum has picked up in recent days. On Thursday, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq”s top Shi”ite cleric who holds wide influence among the 60 percent Shi”ite majority, urged followers to vote "Yes" in the referendum.
At the same time, Sunni religious and political leaders have been urging their community to register to vote — since most boycotted elections in January and are therefore not on the electoral register — and to vote "No" come October 15.
If two-thirds of voters in three or more of Iraq”s 18 provinces vote "No" then the referendum is defeated.
While Sunnis are unlikely to be able to muster enough votes on their own, they are hoping to secure the support of Sadr and his followers, whose nationalist principles oppose the federal structure laid out in the constitution.
Foreign militants, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who heads a group called al Qaeda in Iraq, have threatened an increase in attacks, and have waged violent campaigns around key dates in the past, including the January election.
Sunni Arab nationalists, who form the bulk of the insurgency, are also expected to step up attacks around the same time in an effort to destabilize the country.
Tensions will also be running high as the referendum will be held just four days before Saddam is due in court on charges of crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths of around 150 Shi”ite men in the village of Dujail, north of Baghdad, in 1982 after a failed assassination.