Bombs kill 40 as insurgents contact Iraqi Government

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The Independent Online

Powerful bombs ripped through markets in two Iraqi cities at dusk yesterday, killing at least 40 people and wounding 89. The attacks hit Baquba and Hillah just hours after two parliament members said that Sunni Arab insurgent groups had contacted the government about joining a reconciliation effort.

The deadliest attack ­ a bicycle bombing in Baquba, a Sunni insurgent stronghold north-east of Baghdad, killed at least 25 and wounded 33. Minutes earlier a marketplace blast in Hillah, a mainly Shia city south of the capital, killed at least 15 people and wounded 56.

Both markets were jammed with shoppers buying dinner provisions as temperatures began to cool after sunset.

Police reports from across the country yesterday listed at least 22 other deaths, victims of sectarian murders or bomb and shooting attacks.

Despite the fresh opening from the militant organisations, an Iraqi commander said Baghdad's forces would not be ready to keep the peace in Anbar province, the insurgent heartland, for at least a year. Brig-Gen Jaleel Khalf said his one-year estimate was what he termed "optimistic under the best of circumstances". It accorded with recent forecasts from the US military. "I don't think by this winter we'll be quite ready to turn over completely" to Iraqi forces, Col Sean MacFarland said recently. He commands the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armoured Division, which oversees Ramadi, the capital of Anbar and Iraq's largest Sunni city.

Col MacFarland's comments were echoed in a New York Times interview published yesterday with Lt-Gen John F Sattler, who oversees US marines in the Middle East and Central Asia.

"I see no reductions in American forces in Anbar into next year, at least through next summer, because of the restiveness there," Lt-Gen Sattler was quoted as saying. "Anbar is going to be one of the last provinces to be stabilised."

Brig-Gen Khalf said he thought the Iraqi Army would need about 15,000 soldiers to properly control the vast province that spreads like a fan from Baghdad to the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Syrian borders. The Iraqi defence ministry says it has about 12,000 soldiers in Anbar. "If our forces are built on a proper foundation and equipped with modern weapons and materials such as heavy artillery, mortars, and new light weapons that are held by the world's modern armies, we could take over security in Anbar in about a year," he said.

Iraqi military preparedness has come under intense focus in recent days after reports that Gen George W Casey, the US commander in Iraq, had developed a withdrawal plan that could see American troop strength reduced by two brigades in September. Beyond that, the plan was said to include cutting total American forces, now at about 127,000, by about half at the end of 2007.

President George Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, however, played down the reports ­ which could initially see a reduction of as many as 7,000 troops.

"I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, 'Well, they're going to pull two brigades out,'" Mr Snow said.

The President himself brushed aside expectations of a significant troop reduction starting in September. He said decisions on troop strength would be made by the new Iraqi government and based upon recommendations from Gen Casey.

The seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups that approached the government about joining a reconciliation effort were motivated in part by fear of undue Iranian influence in the country, according to the Kurdish assembly member Mahmoud Othman, a close associate of President Jalal Talabani, who held face-to-face talks with seven unidentified insurgent organisations about two months ago. The insurgent contact came a day after the Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, disclosed a national reconciliation plan, which offered amnesty to opposition fighters who had not killed Iraqis, were not involved in terrorism and had not committed crimes against humanity. AP