A car bomb and a rocket attack devastated a Shiite market district in one of Baghdad's safest central neighborhoods on Thursday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 95. Meanwhile, the American military announced the deaths of seven U.S. troops.
An explosives-laden garbage truck exploded near a market at about the same time as a Katyusha rocket slammed into a three-story residential building in the predominantly Shiite Karradah area in Baghdad. Three columns of smoke billowed into the sky and fires burned on the ground after the thunderous explosion, which set cars and buildings on fire, as the district was packed with shoppers on the eve of the Islamic day of rest.
Police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said 28 people were killed and 95 wounded. The officials could not provide a breakdown for each attack because they occurred so close together but said 14 cars were destroyed along with 17 stores selling everything from accessories to falafel sandwiches.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, later blamed Sunni extremists for the rocket attack and said at least 15 people were killed and 84 wounded. He did not mention the car bombing reported by police.
The attack was the deadliest in a series of bombings nationwide as at least 78 people were killed or found dead, a day after two suicide car bombings killed and wounded dozens of revelers celebrating the national team's semifinal victory in Asia's top soccer tournament.
Firas Rahim, who sells clothes at a stand near the site of Thursday's explosion said he saw at least three buildings on fire, with firefighters climbing ladders from their engines to rescue people stuck in their apartments. Many residents were crying as they searched for missing relatives.
"The terrorists, curse them, are behind this act. They are angry because the people were celebrating and happy yesterday. Now they took their revenge," he said, referring to the jubilation that filled the streets of Baghdad after the soccer team advanced to Sunday's finals in the Asian Cup.
With five days to go before the end of July, an Associated Press tally showed that at least 1,759 Iraqis were killed in war-related violence through July 26, more than the 1,640 who were reported killed in all of June - a more than 7 percent increase.
Victims of sectarian slayings were also on the rise: at least 723 bodies were found dumped across Iraq so far in July, or an average of nearly 28 a day, compared with 19 a day in June, when 563 bodies were reported found, according to the AP. At least 28 bodies were found Thursday - most in Baghdad - apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shiite militias.
Those numbers included civilians, government officials and Iraqi security forces, and are considered only a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
The high casualty figures dealt a blow to U.S. and Iraqi claims of success in stemming the violence as they fight to gain control of the capital and surrounding areas ahead of a pivotal progress report due to be delivered to U.S. Congress in September as legislators are engaged in a fierce debate over calls to bring American troops home.
U.S. troop deaths, meanwhile, were lower so far in July than at any time since the American and Iraqi governments launched a security crackdown on Feb. 12.
The No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, expressed cautious optimism about the downturn. He said it appeared that casualties had increased as fresh U.S. forces expanded operations into militant strongholds as part of the 5-month-old operation aimed at clamping off violence in the capital, but were going down as the Americans gained control of the areas.
"We've started to see a slow but gradual reduction in casualties, and it continues in July," he said at a news conference. "It's an initial positive sign, but I would argue we need a bit more time to make an assessment whether it's a true trend."
Three U.S. Marines and a sailor were killed Tuesday in combat in Diyala province - the site of a major military operation against a Sunni insurgent stronghold, according to the military. It also said two U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad _ one in a roadside bombing on Tuesday and another in a gunbattle on Wednesday. Separately, a Marine died Sunday in a non-combat related incident in Anbar province.
The deaths raised to at least 64 U.S. troops who have died this month, a relatively low number compared with American death tolls of more than 100 for the previous three months, according to an Associated Press tally based on military statements.
By contrast, the death toll over the months of April, May and June was unusually high. The toll the preceding three months ranged from 81 to 83. In July 2006, the toll was 43.
Odierno also said the U.S. military has noted a "significant improvement" in the aim of attackers firing rockets and mortars into the heavily fortified Green Zone in the past three months.
Attacks against the sprawling complex along the Tigris River in Baghdad have increased in recent months, adding to the concern over the safety of key Iraqi and international officials and thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors who live and work there.
Odierno said networks continue to smuggle powerful roadside bombs and mortars across the border from Iran despite Tehran's assertions that it supports stability in Iraq, though he offered no proof. Iran has denied the U.S. allegations about its activities in Iraq.
His remarks came two days after the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq met in Baghdad and agreed to establish a security committee to jointly address the violence amid Washington's allegations that Tehran is fueling the violence by support Shiite militias. Odierno said the military also believes training of extremists is being conducted in Iran.
"One of the reasons why we're sitting down with the Iranian government ... is trying to solve some of these problems," Odierno said at a news conference in the Green Zone, which is home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.
"We have seen in the last three months a significant improvement in the capability of mortarmen and rocketeers to provide accurate fires into the Green Zone and other places and we think this is directly related to training that is conducted in Iran," Odierno said. "So we continue to go after these networks with the Iraqi security forces."
Separately, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with military commanders and tribal leaders in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The area has been the site of a major U.S.-Iraqi operation aimed at clearing it of al-Qaida in Iraq fighters. The Shiite prime minister also discussed efforts to rebuild the city and deliver aid to residents.
Northern Iraq also faced attacks on Thursday, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the gate of a police station west of Mosul, killing at least six people and wounding 13, police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Waqaa said. Most of the casualties were policemen.
A parked car bomb also exploded near a popular restaurant in the center of disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing at least six civilians and wounding 25, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.
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