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A suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with vegetables killed 13 Shias in a town north-east of Baghdad yesterday. And gunmen chanting religious slogans shot dead nine people in a bakery in a Shia district of Baghdad in the latest upsurge of sectarian killings that have continued despite the Iraqi elections.
Insurgents, mostly fanatical Sunni Muslims, are showing that they are prepared to slaughter mercilessly Shias and anybody connected with the interim Iraqi government or the US occupation.
The bomb outside a Shia mosque in Balad Ruz, 45 miles north-east of Baghdad, was designed to kill worshippers as they left Friday prayers. Locals had suspected that there was something suspicious about a pick-up truck loaded with vegetables, said police Colonel Tahseen Mohammed. As Iraqi troops approached, the truck exploded, killing 13 and wounding a similar number.
Sectarian attacks by fundamentalist Sunni fighters, whom Iraqis refer to as Salafi or Wahhabi, have been expected during the lead-up to the Shia feast of Ashura commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 680AD. Suicide bombers among the Ashura crowds in Baghdad and Karbala killed 171 people last year. The borders of Iraq are to be shut next week but this is unlikely to stop the bombers.
The attack on the Shia bakery in the district known as New Baghdad appears to have also been sectarian. Two car-loads of masked gunmen burst into the bakery shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as they sprayed the workers with machine-gun fire, killing nine of them. The white walls of the room where they died were left covered with blood-smeared posters of Shia clerics.
Earlier in the week, fighters killed four policemen and 20 truck drivers who had been captured when a convoy was attacked. It was carrying sugar for the Ministry of Trade to government warehouses in Baghdad. The rotting bodies of the dead men, which nobody dared to touch for two days, were found near Salman Pak, 12 miles south-east of Baghdad.
Insurgents stormed the police station at Salman Pak yesterday. They were only dislodged when US helicopter gunships arrived; 10 policemen and 20 insurgents were killed.
One of the main roads from Baghdad to Basra, Iraq’s second city, passes through Salman Pak. Several Sunni tribes who adhere to the Wahhabi version of Islam prey on traffic using the road. On election day on 30 January they stopped cars. If the fingers of drivers or passengers were marked with the blue ink used to show that a person had voted, the insurgents chopped off the finger.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, arrived on an unannounced visit to US troops in the northern city of Mosul yesterday. He said it would take time for Iraqi security forces to crush the insurgency. He said the election had been a good day for Iraq "but there are still challenges ahead".
The US and the interim government have claimed that the election marked a turning point in Iraq. So far there is little sign of this. Iraq’s Electoral Commission is still checking ballot boxes and some politicians say that the enthusiasm generated by the election is ebbing because of the delay. But the outcome is already clear. The Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, has a commanding lead, followed by the Kurds and, in third place, the Iraqi List led by Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister. None of the other parties will win more than a few seats in the 275-member national assembly.
The election, with the Shias voting en mass and the Sunni Arabs largely abstaining, has deepened the sectarian divide. Among the insurgents, though militarily the most effective are former security men, soldiers and Baathists, it is the Sunni religious fundamentalists who have growing influence. Many of these view Shias as infidels.
The US is continuing to stress that it aims to hand over security duties to rapidly trained Iraqi army units. This has been tried repeatedly by the US military over the past 18 months but with a signal lack of success. Where US soldiers have withdrawn or taken a back seat the result has usually been a power vacuum which has swiftly been filled by resistance fighters.
Interior ministry officials say their officers do not like a US plan to leave US trainers in Iraqi units. Iraqis working with the US Army fear being tagged as collaborators.
Almost two years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the resistance has partial or total control over all the main roads into Baghdad.