Shias targeted as bombs kill 40 in Iraq

Fears of resurgence in sectarian violence ahead of January elections
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Bombs across Iraq killed at least 40 people yesterday, ripping through mostly Shia areas and raising fears of a resurgence in sectarian violence just as politicians hoped to reach out to old foes for January polls.

The blasts are the latest of several attacks targeting Shias since US troops withdrew from urban centres in June, increasing doubts about whether Iraq's security forces, rebuilt from scratch after the 2003 US-led invasion, can cope alone.

Two truck bombs shattered the dawn calm when they exploded within minutes of each other in the mostly Shia village of al-Khazna, 12 miles east of Mosul in the north of Iraq, killing 30 people and wounding 155.

The blasts destroyed about 40 houses in the village, which is home to the small Shabak community, a sect of Kurdish origin. Distraught people gathered around a massive crater left by one of the blasts as firemen picked through the debris for bodies.

"What have we done for terrorists to kill innocents in their sleep?" cried Umm Qasim, 35, her face covered in blood, as she sat in a truck holding her wounded son. The bodies of four of her relatives, including her husband and sister, lay nearby.

Speaking at a televised conference, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said violence may increase ahead of the January polls. "The coming election will witness increasing attempts to damage and violate security. They will try, in any way they can, to show that the political process is not stable," he said.

Bombs and shootings are reported almost daily in and around Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, where insurgents in Iraq have exploited disputes between Arabs and Kurds to remain strong even as their influence has waned elsewhere.

A row over land and oil between the Arab-led government in Baghdad and the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north has come dangerously close to all-out war.

Analysts say insurgents want to trigger such a conflict to tear apart the fragile political process just as politicians struggle to form alliances with other sectarian and ethnic groups ahead of the parliamentary polls.

"The aim is to stall the political process and to bring it back to the era of sectarian conflict before the coming election," said one analyst, Professor, Hameed Fadhel.

Insurgents hide in remote, mountainous areas around Mosul and there are fears that they may gain support by styling themselves as an Arab bulwark against perceived Kurdish encroachment.

There are also fears that the targeting of Shias may re-ignite sectarian slaughter in Iraq, which has only abated in the past 18 months, during which time Sunni, Shia, Kurd and Christian politicians have tried to hammer out election alliances. Last week, a string of bombings targeting Shias killed 44 people. Sunni Islamist militants such as al-Qa'ida, who consider Shias to be heretics, are often blamed.

Mr Maliki and his allies won gains in provincial polls earlier this year, when they campaigned on a platform of increased security. A spike in violence ahead of national elections in January could derail his election plans.

In Baghdad, a car bomb and a roadside bomb targeting labourers queuing for work killed seven people in mostly Shia areas of the capital's south-west, a hospital source said.

In separate attacks in Baghdad, a series of roadside bombs and a bomb stuck to a bus killed three people and wounded 31 others.

Yesterday's attacks come barely a week after the government said it would remove blast walls from Baghdad's main streets.

The national elections will be a key test for Iraq's fledgling democracy and its security forces. Mr Maliki is keen to assert Iraqi sovereignty after years of occupation. "The vote will be a thunderbolt for those who do not want anything but dictatorship, sectarianism and bloodshed," he said.

While violence has fallen sharply in the past 18 months, insurgents still manage to launch attacks in the face of largely untested Iraqi forces, who lack equipment and experience.

US forces are due to leave Iraq by 2012 in accordance with a bilateral security pact between Washington and Baghdad.