Mortar kills nine Iraqis as US sets self-rule deadline for Iraq

New violence erupted in Iraq yesterday when a mortar shell, which may have been aimed at American soldiers stationed nearby, killed nine civilians and injured more than 12 others in the city of Baqouba 30 miles north of the Iraqi capital yesterday.

The attack at an outdoor market was described by Waleed Khalid, the local Iraqi police chief, as "a criminal act aimed at hurting Iraqi civilians". But other local Iraqis said they believed the mortar bomb may have exploded prematurely before it reached its intended target of a government building about 250 yards away, where US soldiers are based.

Hours before the explosion, the Bush administration set a first timetable for self-rule in Iraq, saying the provisional council should come up with a new constitution for the country within six months.

The demand, outlined by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, represents a clear gesture by the US to critics at home and abroad demanding a much quicker handover to Iraqis than Washington has thus far been contemplating.

"It'll be a difficult deadline to meet, but we've got to get them started," General Powell told the New York Times.

Once a constitution is in place, setting out whether the country should have a presidential or parliamentary system, elections could be held and a new leader take power within a year. At that point, the US might be able to start withdrawing its forces, scaling back the cost of a war and occupation for which the administration requested an additional $87bn (£52bn) earlier this month.

The immediate White House calculation, however, is that - by drawing up a more precise timetable for self rule, it will quieten the mounting criticism in Congress, among Republicans as well as Democrats, of its conduct of post-war Iraq.

It hopes, too, that General Powell's words will increase the chances of a UN resolution authorising a multilateral force for Iraq, that takes some of the military and financial weight of occupation off US shoulders.

Though the US has circulated various drafts, the White House had been resigned to weeks of hard bargaining before agreement. President Bush is seeking the support of Russia, a leading Security Council opponent of the war, at a Camp David summit with Vladimir Putin this weekend.

But yesterday's mortar bombing will do nothing to make other countries readier to send troops of their own into a violent and dangerous place.

Separately, yesterday an American soldier was killed in an ambush in the northern city of Kirkuk, while three others were wounded in an attack in Tikrit. Since Mr Bush declared an end to major combat operations on 1 May, 86 US servicemen have been killed by fighters in Iraq, more than died during the war proper.

Despite the violence, General Powell argued a swifter handover to an unelected Iraqi Government, as demanded most vocally by France would merely reduce its legitimacy in the eyes of the world and increase the likelihood of violent attacks by what he called "ex-Baathists." The inability of the US-led coalition to stabilise Iraq has led Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general to order a further reduction of UN international staff in Iraq.

It was unclear how many of the non-Iraqi UN personnel would leave. But Mr Annan's order came days after the second bombing outside UN headquarters in Baghdad on Monday which killed an Iraqi policeman and injured 19 others. The first, on 19 August, killed 22 people, at a time when UN staff in the country numbered about 600.

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