Flames and smoke rose over Baghdad from a blazing building after an explosion that was aimed at a police patrol killed six and wounded seven passers-by instead.
“We saw a minivan parked outside an electrical goods store from the morning,” said Abu Zahra, who has a stand selling refreshments, yesterday. “At 10, we heard the car blow up and it threw me to the ground. I nearly choked from the smoke. I saw at least five bodies scattered in the street.”
Meanwhile, US and Iraqi army forces sealed off the northern town of Tal Afar, the scene of heavy fighting in the past, and imposed a curfew after a suicide bomb driven into the funeral tent of a Kurdish official killed 30 people and wounded 50 at the weekend.
The scale of the continuing violence in Iraq over the past year was underlined by a US report on the 4 March shooting by American troops of Italian security agent Nicola Calipari, the rescuer of the journalist Giuliana Sgrena who had been held hostage.
It also reveals there were 15,527 attacks on coalition forces, largely American, from July 2004 to late March 2005. Some 2,404 attacks took place in Baghdad from 1 November to 12 March.
The report was first issued by the US in a heavily censored form with sensitive information blocked out. But an Italian computer specialist discovered that the censorship was easy to remove.
The picture painted by the uncensored military report is in sharp contrast to the more optimistic views given by the Pentagon to the US media.
The bombings in the past week underline that the insurgents have lost none of their ability to carry out attacks, almost always without regard for civilian casualties, all over Iraq. In the three months since the elections on 30 January there was a drop in American losses which led to official optimism that the guerrilla war was on the wane.
There has been an increase in the number of assassination attempts against Iraqi senior security officers based on precise intelligence about their movements. A bomb yesterday slightly wounded Major-General Fuleih Rasheed, the commander of a police commando unit linked to the interior ministry, and two of his men in the Huriya district of northwest Baghdad. The bomb exploded as Maj-Gen Rasheed’s convoy raced past the point.
A third bomb in Baghdad in the Zayouna district killed two policemen and wounded 10 people.
It is not clear how far the wave of bombings, some 17 of them in Baghdad, is a response to the formation of a new government dominated by the Shia and the Kurds. The Sunni community, the backbone of the insurgency, received few ministerial positions.
The insurgents are less interested in participation in the present government than in direct talks with the US, a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and the right to rebuild the Baath party. In Sunni Arab towns and cities a so-called New Baath party is beginning to emerge and is said to be very well organised.
The attack on the Kurdish funeral in Tal Afar, a Shia Turkoman town west of Mosul, will sharpen sectarian and ethnic differences in the area. The bomber blew himself up as Kurds gathered to mourn Sayed Taleb Sayed Wahab, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who was murdered three days earlier.
The Kurds see Tal Afar as being a stronghold of the resistance. “There are more than 250 dangerous terrorists there,” Khasro Goran, the KDP leader and deputy governor in Mosul, said before the attack on the funeral. He was trying to get US support for an Iraqi army assault on the town.
Mr Goran said he had received a sympathetic hearing from the American military when he proposed a joint assault. There are two Iraqi National Guard battalions, whose men are all Kurds, in the region, supported by a police commando force “Wolf”, which is mostly Shia.
A problem for the US is that political differences in northern Iraq are based on ethnic differences between Kurds, Turkoman and Sunni Arab. The Kurds are moving back into lands west of Mosul known as Sinjar from which they were evicted by Saddam Hussein.
A man with explosives strapped to his body killed as many as 60 and wounded 150 people when he blew himself up in a crowd of young men in the Kurdish city of Arbil in northern Iraq. The men were queuing to get jobs in the police.
The blackened bodies of the dead were scattered amid pools of blood in front of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office – which doubled as a recruitment centre – as ambulances and private cars raced through the streets carrying the seriously wounded to hospitals.
As doctors treated the injured yesterday, distraught relatives mobbed the hospitals looking for members of their families. Hospital staff used loudspeakers to give the names of victims and tell people which rooms the injured were in.
Ahmed Mohammed, 37, had just been dropped off at the recruitment centre to look for a job by his brother, Hawra, who then drove away in his car.
Seconds later the bomb went off. On hearing the explosion, Hawra immediately returned and found Ahmed lying in the street unconscious and covered in blood. “I lifted my brother onto my shoulders and took him to a nearby hospital,” Hawra said. “The blood on my shirt is my brother’s.”
The wave of bombings across Iraq in the past week has led to a mood of fear and despair. At least 200 people have died. Many people in Baghdad are refusing to leave their houses except for essential tasks.
The sense of hopelessness has deepened as the optimism following the election on 30 January dissipated while the triumphant Shia and Kurdish coalitions failed to form a government. It was finally sworn in this week with Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister, but several ministerial positions have still to be filled.
The sense of anarchy in Iraq is growing. Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator, said in Baghdad yesterday: “Iraq is getting more like Bosnia every day. The centre is becoming very weak. Officially they will keep the façade of a unitary state, but in practice there is no effective government.”
Orders from the capital on the appointment of officials are often ignored. The government fired the police chief of Najaf recently, but he stayed on.
The divide between Shia, Sunni and Kurds is deepening. Mr Attiyah said: “It is getting so bad that if a ministry appoints a Shia doorman, the Kurds and Sunni will demand that doormen from their communities stand beside him.”
Arbil, the largest Kurdish city with a population of a million, last came under attack on 1 February 2004 when two suicide bombers, a Saudi and a Syrian, used the cover of a festival to blow themselves up and kill 117 people, including several Kurdish leaders.
Asked last week by The Independent if another suicide bomb attack was possible in Arbil, Karim Sinjari, the interior minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, said he could not rule this out “because suicide bombers are very difficult to stop”. He believed they would come from the nearby cities of Mosul or Kirkuk, where there is a simmering war between Arabs and Kurds, because “they have no cells here”. Security around public buildings in Arbil is slack compared to Baghdad.
The Army of Ansa al-Sunna, one of the best organised and most dangerous of the resistance groups, claimed last night that it carried out the bombing.
In an internet statement, it said: “This operation is in response to our brothers who are being tortured in your prisons … and in response to the infidel peshmerga forces which surrendered to the Crusaders and [have] become a thorn in the side of Muslims.”
The pessimistic mood in Baghdad stems from exaggerated euphoria, certainly in the Shia community, after the January election, when voters turned out despite suicide bombs. There was also a belief the confessions of captured insurgents on television meant violence was on the wane. Instead, it has got worse.
Although the insurgents are not popular in Baghdad, many Iraqis say they think it legitimate to attack American soldiers, but not Iraqi police or army.
The supply of electricity fell to six hours a day after the election, though it is now back up to 12. In March, flooding led to many houses in Baghdad being inundated with rainwater mixed with raw sewage. “My aunt had to leave her house for three days,” said Ali Hussein, a mechanic.
Politics is increasingly embittered. On a wall in his shop where he sells spare parts for cars, Karim Abdul Rahman al-Obeidi, a merchant, has put up a notice which simply reads: “You are welcome, but please do not talk about the political situation.” It just leads to quarrels, he says.
Burnt wreckage on the road marks the place in south Baghdad where insurgents poured fuel over a bullet-riddled police car with the driver dead or badly wounded still at the wheel and set it on fire.
The attack took place yesterday at about 6am in the al-Shebab district of the capital as police in their blue-and-white patrol cars were setting up a checkpoint. By the time the shooting had ended, a further nine policemen had been killed, adding to the total of 616 killed so far this year. Another two policemen were wounded.
The battle is typical of the fighting between insurgents and Iraqi security forces raging across Iraq every day but it is sparsely reported even when many are killed.
Local people, none of whom wanted to be named, said the police often set up checkpoints close to the al-Darwish roundabout. Al-Shebab is a lower middle-class neighbourhood where many people have clerical jobs working for the government. It is not known for political militancy and has a mixed Shia and Sunni population but it is easy to reach from hardcore insurgent towns such as Mahmoudiya and Latafiyah on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
The lightly-armed police do not seem to have had much of a chance. A few hours later, there were bloodstains and a few copper cartridge cases from a Kalashnikov on the concrete pavement in front of a shop dealing in real estate. The owner was stoically sweeping up broken glass. He pointed to a dozen holes where bullets punctured the metal door of his shop, dug chunks out of a wall and ripped through the green sofa on which his clients normally sat.
“We were all very frightened when we heard the shooting,” said a neighbour in a long brown robe who witnessed the attack. “I came out as soon as it was over and found one policeman dead in the street. There was another one hit in the side who was crawling along and I tried to help him.”
On the other side of the highway, he saw gunmen pour fuel over a police car with a man inside it.
By one account, the insurgents had a heavy machine gun mounted on a truck – much more powerful than anything used by the police. Others fired from cars. The ambush site is just by an open space used for parking buses and lorries that would have provided cover for gunmen.
The war in Iraq is changing from one between the insurgents and the US army towards one between the guerrillas and the Iraqi army and police. By the end of next year, the US hopes to have trained 300,000 Iraqi soldiers and police.
The fighting has an increasing sectarian edge with most of the new recruits being Shia or Kurds. The officer corps of the old army under Saddam Hussein was more than three-quarters Sunni.
The policemen shot down in the al-Shebab district were not the only people to die violently in Baghdad yesterday morning. Eleven young men were killed and six wounded when a suicide bomber struck at an army recruitment centre.
“While we were standing in line, a man walked past, right up to the heavily guarded entrance gate as if he wanted to ask the guards a question,” Anwar Asfi, who was standing at the end of the line, said. “Suddenly an explosion occurred and I was knocked over.”
Another police officer died and six wounded in an assassination attempt on an official when a car blew up in Ghazaliyah district.
Ethnic divisions are also deepening in northern Iraq. The Army of Ansar al-Sunnah claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb outside a police recruiting centre in the Kurdish city of Arbil on Wednesday saying it was revenge for the Kurdish peshmerga fighting alongside US troops.
* A US Marines corporal who was videotaped shooting an apparently injured and unarmed Iraqi in Fallujah last year will not face a court martial, the Marine Corps has said. The corporal, who was not named, said he shot three insurgents in self-defence. Astatement from the Marines said the corporal “could have reasonably believed the AIF [anti-Iraq forces] … posed a threat”.