Attack in market area as U.S., Iraqi forces prepare for a security sweep

BAGHDAD: Two suicide bombers blew themselves up on Thursday in a crowded outdoor market in Hillah, a Shia city 95 km south of here, killing 45 people and wounding 150, police said. This is the latest in a series of insurgent attacks against the majority sect during the Islamic holy month of Moharram.

The attackers strolled into the market in the centre of the city at about 6 p.m. as shoppers were buying food for their evening meals. Police thought one of the men appeared suspicious and stopped him.

The bomber then detonated his explosives. The second attacker who was walking behind him then set off his own explosives belt, police added.

Hillah was the scene of one of the deadliest attacks in the Iraq war, when a suicide car bomber killed 125 people on February 28, 2005.

The blast capped a day in which at least 17 other people were killed in bombings and mortar attacks against Shia and Sunni targets in Baghdad as U.S. and Iraqi forces prepared for a security sweep to pacify the capital.

Unrelenting violence

The unrelenting sectarian violence has taken on added significance this week as Shias marked their holiest day on Tuesday Ashoura the 10th day of Moharram in the Islamic lunar calendar.

An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said on Thursday that the government has invited neighbouring countries, including U.S. rivals Iran and Syria, to a meeting on security next month in Baghdad. The official did not give a specific date for the meeting but said it was planned for March and would be the 10th held by Iraq's neighbours but the first in the Iraqi capital. The last such meeting was held in July in Iran.

The government said it would consider any attack against U.S. forces in this country as an assault against Iraq, but also wanted good relations with its big eastern neighbour, Iran, underscoring the delicate balance it faced in keeping the rivalry between the two countries from spilling over its borders.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh's comments came amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, following the arrest of five Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil and the January 20 attack to the south in Karbala in which four U.S. soldiers were kidnapped and slain. A fifth was killed in the raid.

U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said there was a ``political and moral difference'' between what the United States and the Iranians were doing in Iraq, reiterating allegations that Tehran had been supporting Shia militias that have been blamed for much of the recent sectarian violence in Iraq. ``There's been increased evidence over that time that Iran has given this kind of assistance to the Shia insurgency groups in southern Iraq. They have attacked British soldiers near Basra, and they've now begun to mount those operations throughout the country, at least in the Baghdad region as well,'' he said in an interview with NPR.

Offering the first indication of the war's toll on regular Iraqis this year, a Health Ministry official said 1,990 civilians had been killed in violence in January, a more than threefold increase from the 548 civilians the Ministry reported killed in the same month last year. Counts kept by other groups, including the U.N., have listed far higher numbers.

The official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to release the figures, said 1,936 civilians also had been wounded, according to the figures, which were compiled from daily reports sent by morgues and hospitals nationwide.

Figures provided by the Defence and Interior ministries also showed that 100 Iraqi security forces were killed in January, while 593 insurgents were killed and 1,926 detained.

A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said invitations to a meeting in March had been issued to Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria, as well as Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Conference and the United Nations.

Similar meetings have been held in recent years in Turkey, Iran and Egypt but without any significant results. This would be the first to be held in the violence-ridden Iraqi capital, the official said.

The announcement came a day after officials said Iraq had indefinitely halted all flights to and from Syria and closed a border crossing with Iran as the government prepared for a new U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown. AP