`We do not get many bombs like this here ... we feared this would happen'

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The attack had been threatened for a while, but it was still a deadly surprise when it came - men covered in blood limping away on a road strewn with twisted metal, glass shards and charred bodies.

A motorcycle parked on the roadside with a hidden bomb had exploded as a patrol of National Guards were passing by yesterday, killing four guardsmen and critically injuring two others. The convoy's four-wheel drive vehicles had been thrown across the road, and, along with the smell of burning, the screams and the sirens, there were rumours that other bombs were due to go off.

By the standards of Iraq's extreme violence, this was not particularly spectacular. But it had occurred in Basra, in the Shia south, which has escaped most of the mayhem of Baghdad and the Sunni triangle. Such scenes are not commonplace here.

There had been a mood of expectancy and confidence in Iraq's second city after an election in which the Shias turned out in their millions to gain power in the country for the first time in a century. Nowhere do the Sunnis feel more beleaguered than in Basra and the south at seeing their previous ascendancy ebb away, and there have been threats of retribution and a renewed campaign by insurgents after the election.

Even as the human and material remains were being cleared from the scene near the Old State Building in Al-Hussein district, the recriminations began. Angry Iraqi police officers immediately blamed Sunnis for the blast, and the crowd were quick to echo this.

"It is a shock, because we do not get many bombs like this here, compared to Baghdad and places like Mosul," said Ahmed Bakr Ali, a 23-year-old student. "But we have been nervous that something like this would happen after the election. There are obviously people who do not like the idea of the Shias being the government, even if they are the majority."

Aamir al-Haitham Hussein, who was on his way to work, said: " It is a big, big bang. It is very bad. I do not know who did this, but there has been talk of Sunni terrorists, maybe foreigners, doing something like this. After all, they have attacked Shia cities before."

Lieutenant Colonel Phil Lewis, the commander of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, based in Basra, was more circumspect. "It is a sad fact that we are seeing more attacks targeted at security forces in the post-election period," he said. "Those who feel the election has challenged their power base can, unfortunately, very easily plant roadside bombs and cause destruction." Lt Col Lewis added that local troops have little protection, as they patrol in open-sided trucks.

But there have also been complaints from the Sunnis that they are being persecuted by the Shia dominated security forces in the south, and have been subjected to an increasing number of sectarian attacks by Shias. Feelings have run particularly high over a raid on the Martyrs of al-Hamza mosque by the National Guard and police on election day, during which money was allegedly stolen and a number of religious artefacts were desecrated.

Sheikh Abdul Karim, the most senior Sunni cleric in the south, said: "The Sunni community is coming under increasing attacks. We are trying to maintain peaceful relations with the other community, but we are facing a lot of provocation."

Elsewhere in Iraq, violence continued alongside the election count yesterday, with the killings of 15 more people, including two American soldiers in a bomb attack near Beji, north of Baghdad. Five policemen were shot down after insurgents over-ran a police station in Mosul, and an Iraqi militant group, Army of Ansar al-Sunna, said it had shot dead seven abducted Iraqi National Guards. It posted an internet video yesterday showing them being executed.

Also yesterday, a colleague of Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad on Friday, said she had received a second call from Ms Sgrena's mobile phone. Barbara Schiavulli, another journalist working in Baghdad, heard no voices during the 15-second call, only Arab music playing in the background. On Friday she received a call, apparently while the kidnapping was taking place, and heard the sound of gunfire in the background.

Italian officials are trying to find out who is holding Ms Sgrena, 56, of the left-wing Il Manifesto newspaper.