Basra bomb kills 20 as Iraq violence escalates

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The Independent Online

At least 20 people were killed yesterday in a car bomb blast aimed at shoppers in Basra in one of the worst attacks in British-controlled southern Iraq since the war. In Baghdad seven American soldiers were killed, making October the bloodiest month for the US since January.

The carnage continued throughout the country with reports that about 40 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in American air strikes in the west towards the Syrian border.

It was, however, the bombing in Basra, in the Shia heartland, which highlighted the level of anarchy in the country and cast further doubt on the repeated assertions by Tony Blair and George Bush that the security situation was improving in Iraq.

Initial reports indicated that the bombings - which happened as families were out in the streets preparing for the end of Ramadan - did not include any British casualties. But large parts of the country's second-largest city have become "no-go" areas for the British forces and are now controlled by the Iraqi police who, British officials admit, have been heavily infiltrated by Shia militias.

According to officials in Basra, who are Shias, the bombing was the work of Sunni insurgents from central Iraq. The explosives were hidden in a parked car in Algiers Street, a busy thoroughfare.

Colonel Karim al-Zaidi of the police said: "We have had many deaths and many wounded. It is a very bad incident." Sabah Rashid, a shopkeeper, added, "There were people preparing for the celebrations of Eid [end of Ramadan] and it was a happy occasion.

"Then there was a loud bang and a lot of people were hurt and killed. Basra is a dangerous city."

In Baghdad, there appeared to be a rift between the US-backed Iraqi government and the American military, with President Jalal Talabani criticising American commanders for not letting Iraqi security forces get engaged in more frontline duties. He said it would be less inflammatory if US and British troops guarded oil pipelines and other strategic installations. "We ask them for things to change, they agree, and then nothing is done," he said.

The insurgency continues to take a heavy toll on American forces. Yesterday's deaths took the total number of soldiers killed in October to 90, the highest since January when 107 were killed.

US military authorities maintained that an air raid in western Iraq targeted two insurgent safe houses at Karabilah in a series of precision strikes. But doctors at a hospital in the nearby town of Qaim insisted that those who died included women and children. Video footage showed residents weeping over dead bodies, including at least three children. One man said on film, "Innocent people have been killed by warplanes. Why are the Americans killing families? Where are the insurgents? We don't see democracy, we just see destruction." Dr Ahmed al-Ani, at Qaim General Hospital, said, "There were about 40 people killed and they were civilians. About 12 were children."

Mohammed Aziz, a member of the medical staff said, "There were females and young people who were brought here. Some we could treat, but it was too late for many of the others."

The US soldiers died in two separate attacks, at Youssigiyah 12 miles south of Baghdad, in the so-called "Triangle of Death" and Balad, 50 miles north of the capital.

]A recent US military report, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, has described how the enemy is successfully altering its tactics. "Insurgents have learnt to avoid head-to-head engagements ... using stand-off or hit-and-run attacks instead. Improvised explosive devices are the primary insurgent method of attack."

Iraqi fighters appeared to be using fewer suicide attacks and relying more on mortars and rockets. Two separate mortar attacks by insurgents at Bagh, in northern Iraq killed three people and injured 11. In Baghdad, mortar rounds aimed at the oil ministry killed one man and injured four others and another mortar and rocket attack killed two Iraqi soldiers at an army barracks.

US and Iraqi government forces staged a series of raids in Baghdad, arresting more than 100 people. Among them, it was claimed, were a number "insurgent activists and support groups".