BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Two bombs exploded minutes apart near a central Baghdad square on Tuesday, killing at least seven people and wounding 20 as violence increased ahead of a major Shiite holy day later this week.
Elsewhere, the U.S. military said four Marines died in separate explosions in western Iraq and masked gunmen killed a Sunni Arab cleric who headed the city council in the western city of Fallujah.
The first Baghdad bomb was in a plastic bag placed near a CD vendor’s stand close to the capital’s Tahrir Square by a man who fled seconds before the explosion, which killed at least three people, said police Capt. Mohammed Abdul Ghani. Ten minutes later, a second bomb hidden in a drain exploded, killing four more people including one policeman, he said.
Officials at two hospitals where the casualties were taken confirmed that seven people were killed and at least 20 wounded in both bombings.
The exact motive of the first bomb was unclear. Police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said the CD vendors may have been targeted because some sold sexually explicit films. The second blast, he added, was aimed at policemen arriving at the scene.
A witness, however, said the first blast occurred near a crowd of people watching a film on the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a 7th century Shiite saint mourned by millions of Iraqis during the feast of Ashoura.
“I was standing near the vendor who was targeted. He had a television set showing a film on the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and then the explosion happened,” said Ali Abdul Mohsen Karim, 25, who sells leather jackets in the square. “I saw two people dead and ran and hid in one of the stores. Then the other explosion took place.”
Ashoura commemorations reach their height on Thursday when hundreds of thousands of Shiites are expected to take part in self-flagellation processions across the country.
Iraqi security forces are on high alert to prevent a repeat of the past two Ashoura ceremonies in which Sunni Arab extremist suicide attackers detonated explosions targeting Shiite worshippers, killing more than 230 people in Baghdad and the holy southern city of Karbala.
The bombings came amid a spate of sectarian-related killings carried out by rival armed Shiite and Sunni Arab groups vying for ascendancy in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Several political parties are also trying to form a national unity government comprising members of the country’s Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities. The United States hopes such a government could help reduce the incessant violence and allow coalition forces to reduce their troop levels.
Four U.S. Marines were killed by bombings in western Iraq’s volatile Anbar province in the past few days, the military said Tuesday.
Three Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit died in a bombing Monday in Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, according to a statement. The victims had been in Anbar province since mid-December working with an Iraqi army battalion.
Another Marine, attached to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, died from wounds caused by a bomb blast Sunday in an unspecified location in Anbar, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
The latest deaths bring the number of U.S. military personnel killed to at least 2,257 since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The blasts highlight the constant danger posed by homemade bombs across Iraq, which have become the deadliest weapon used by mainly Sunni Arab insurgents against the U.S.-led military presence in the country.
In Fallujah, a prominent Sunni Arab cleric was killed by a hail of gunfire from two passing cars as he walked to work on Tuesday, said Fallujah police chief, Brig. Hudairi al-Janabi.
Sheik Kamal Nazal, aged in his 60s, was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead, said al-Janabi. His body was taken to the nearby Shakir mosque that he headed for a funeral service. The motive for the attack was unknown.
Police increased security in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, and set up checkpoints looking for the gunmen’s cars.
Nazal was elected council chairman by Fallujah’s residents in early 2005. He was previously arrested along with his brother by U.S. troops before the April 2004 Fallujah offensive.
Fallujah had been the headquarters of Iraqi insurgent and religious extremist groups until U.S. forces overran the city in November 2004. Since then the city has become among the most tightly controlled in Iraq.
In other violence Tuesday:
• A roadside bomb struck a pickup truck south of Baghdad, killing two civilians, police said. It was unclear if they were the target of the attack.
• Drive-by gunmen killed a supporter of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad, police said. The victim worked at an al-Sadr office south of the capital.
• A roadside bomb wounded four policemen in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said.