Upsurge of Sunni violence follows election results

A bomb struck the motorcade of President Jalal Talabani and at least 11 others were killed in a widely predicted upsurge of Sunni violence following the release of last month's controversial Iraqi election results.

The road side bomb wounded five members of the President's staff late on Friday night, 75 miles south of the oil city of Kirkuk, as they drove back to the capital from the Kurdish region in the north. President Talabani was not present.

Elsewhere, 11 Iraqis, including an army major, three policemen and three butchers, were killed in a separate bomb blasts and in a drive-by shooting. Yesterday's bloodshed almost equalled Thursday's high death toll, when 15 Iraqis were killed in bombings in Baghdad.

Both the Iraqi government and the Americans have been bracing for a bout of Sunni militancy after the final results of the parliamentary elections confirmed the victory of parties representing the far more numerous Shia, leaving Iraq's formerly dominant Sunni minority with the prospect of being excluded from power.

The results awarded the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance 128 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi assembly, only 10 short of an absolute majority, while their probable future coalition partners among the various Kurdish parties won 53 seats. Sunni parties took only around 50 seats, leaving their participation in government open to question. Foreign governments, led by the US, have urged Iraqis to form a broad-based government including all three of Iraq's main communities, in the hope of undercutting the grounds for Sunni anger over the election results. Many of them claim the results are fraudulent.

After the results are ratified in about two weeks, President Talabani has 15 days to convene parliament, which must choose a new president. He will then designate a prime minister from the Shia bloc who must present a cabinet to parliament for approval within a month.

Within minutes of the release of the results of the election, Sunni rebels had launched mortar attacks on two US bases in Ramadi, causing minor injuries to US solders, and leading the government on Thursday to seal off the three predominantly Sunni Arab provinces for 48 hours.

With no let-up in sight to Iraq's carnage, or to the wave of kidnappings, a delegation of American Muslims arrived in Baghdad to plead for the release of an American journalist, Jill Carroll, who was taken hostage in Baghdad's suburbs on 7 January.

The kidnappers of the freelance reporter, from The Christian Science Monitor, have threatened to kill her unless American forces release all Iraqi women currently held in military custody. The deadline expired on Friday. "We are very hopeful they will hear our message on behalf of American Muslims," said Nadi Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, referring to the kidnappers, who have been identified as a previously unknown group called "The Revenge Brigade". "Harming her will do them no good at all. The only way is to release her," Mr Awad added.

Ibrahim Ali, Iraq's deputy Justice Minister, urged the US to release six Iraqi women now in US detention on Monday or Tuesday in order to help Ms Carroll. American officials have confirmed that they are holding nine Iraqi women detainees.

More than 240 foreigners have been taken captive in Iraq and at least 39 killed since the 2003 invasion by US-led forces.

There has been no word about the fate of Norman Kember, the 74-year-old British peace activist seized on November 26 with two Canadians and an American. The four were seized by a group calling itself the Swords of Truth, which demanded the release of all Iraqi prisoners by 10 December, a deadline that was not met.

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