BAGHDAD, (AP) – A flurry of bombings in Baghdad killed 26 people Sunday, and officials said the death toll from a giant suicide truck blast that devastated the market of a Shiite town north of the capital a day earlier could be more than 130.
Officials earlier had said Saturday’s bombing in the town of Armili killed 115 people, one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq in months. The blast suggested Sunni insurgents are moving further north to strike in less protected regions beyond the U.S. security crackdown in Baghdad and on the capital’s northern doorstep.
The string of attacks Sunday morning in Baghdad made clear that extremists can still unleash organized strikes in the capital despite a relative lull in violence there in past weeks amid the U.S. offensives.
Two car bombs detonated nearly simultaneously in Baghdad’s mostly Shiite Karrada district, killing eight people. The first hit at 10:30 a.m., near a closed restaurant, destroying stalls and soft drink stands. Two passers-by were killed and eight wounded, a police official said.
The area is near the offices of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the biggest Shiite party in parliament, and is believed to be among the most protected parts of the city.
About five minutes later, the second car exploded about a mile away, hitting shops selling leather jackets and shoes. Six people were killed and seven wounded, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
On Baghdad’s southwestern outskirts, a bomb hit a truckload of newly recruited Iraqi soldiers being brought into the capital to join the crackdown, killing 15 soldiers and wounding 20, a police official at the nearest police station said, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Also, a bomb hidden under a car went off at the entrance of Shorja market — a central Baghdad market that has been hit repeatedly by insurgents — killing three civilians and wounding five, police said.
The U.S. military announced that an American soldier was killed in combat a day earlier in Salahuddin province. It did not provide details.
Armili residents on Sunday buried about 70 of the dead from the truck bombing the previous morning. Mourners flowed into mosques and funeral tents set up in the town’s main street, where black banners were hung on the walls with names of the dead.
Iraqi army and police forces were out in increased numbers in the streets and closed off entrances to the town to prevent attacks on the funerals — a frequent target of Sunni insurgents, said Brig. Abbas Mohammed Amin, chief of police in the nearby city of Tuz Khurmato.
The toll from the attack in the farming town of 26,000 — mostly Shiites from Iraq’s ethnic Turkoman minority — was still not clear. Abdullah Jabara, deputy governor of Salahuddin province where the town is located, said Saturday the toll from the blast was 115 dead — nearly three-quarters of them women, children and elderly.
On Sunday, Amin put the toll at 150 dead, while Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite Turkoman lawmaker, told reporters 130 had been killed.
The count was difficult because of the town’s remote location and because many of the dead initially had been buried under rubble that took hours to clear. Saturday’s blast ripped through the town market during crowded morning shopping, destroying dozens of old mud-brick homes and shops.
Al-Bayati sharply criticized the security situation in the town, saying its police force had only 30 members and that the Interior Ministry had finally responded to requests for more two days before the attack. He said authorities should help residents “arm themselves” to protect them if the security forces cannot.
He said an Iraqi army battalion was moved out of the Armili region to Baghdad earlier this year to help in the crackdown in the capital. Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari denied that, saying the army’s 4th Division was in the area.
Armili residents say regions like theirs are being left exposed and vulnerable. Tensions are constantly high between the town’s Shiite Turkoman population and the Sunni Arabs who dominate the surrounding villages. Iraqi security presence is scant in the remote region, far from Salahuddin’s administrative center and the eye of officials.
“The number of Iraqi police and army in this area is too low. This is a farming area with a lot of empty areas, so it’s neglected. There’s not even much presence of government officials,” said Haytham Khalaf, 37, an Amirli resident whose niece was injured. He accused local Sunnis of helping al-Qaida set up a presence there.
U.S. forces are waging an offensive in the city of Baqouba, just north of Baghdad, to uproot al-Qaida militants and Sunni insurgents using the region to launch attacks in the capital. But American commanders acknowledged that many extremists fled Baqouba before the sweep began in mid-June.
Al-Bayati said Sunni insurgents had fled to the Himrin region, a swathe of mountains southeast of Armili, between it and Baqouba.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told The Associated Press on Saturday he expected Sunni extremists to try to “pull off a variety of sensational attacks and grab the headlines to create a `mini-Tet.'”
He was referring to the 1968 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Tet offensive that undermined public support for the Vietnam War in the United States.
The U.S. military may be forced to tolerate attacks further north as they focus on pacifying Baghdad and its surroundings, hoping that calm in the capital will give the government time to take key political steps. Washington is pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pass measures to encourage Sunni Arabs to turn away from support of the insurgency to back the government.
Efforts to pass the measures, however, continue to be tied down in political feuding between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties in al-Maliki’s fragile coalition.