By SINAN SALAHEDDIN
Two car bombs targeted commuters in Baghdad and clashes between security forces and militants killed at least 18 civilians, officials said Sunday, amid an ongoing standoff between Iraqi forces and al-Qaida-linked militants west of the Iraqi capital.
The deadliest blast occurred at a bustling bus station in central Baghdad when an explosives-laden car exploded outside, killing at least nine people and wounding 16, a police officer said. Thousands of people use the bus station every day or pass through the area. Last Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of security force recruits nearby, killing nearly two dozen.
Another parked car bomb targeted a gathering of buses and taxis in Baghdad’s northern Hurriyah neighborhood, killing four civilians and wounding 12, the same police officer said.
Shortly after sunset, fighting erupted in Baghdad’s western suburbs of Abu Ghraib as gunmen attacked a military convoy, authorities said. Army artillery shells later landed on the Sunni village of al-Mahsna in Abu Ghraib, killing five civilians and wounding 13, police said.
Medical officials confirmed the causality figures for all attacks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.
The attacks come as Iraqi security forces and allied Sunni tribal militias in Anbar have been battling al-Qaida-linked militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Iraqi forces have yet to militarily try to reassert control over Fallujah, which remains in the hands of the militants and tribal gunmen opposed to the central government. Militants and tribal fighters also control part of the provincial capital, Ramadi. Sporadic clashes there and in surrounding areas continue to take place.
Thousands of families have left the area, fearing a government offensive. Clashes between militants and security forces have killed least 60 people since the violence erupted after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the dismantling of an anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
The extremist militants, emboldened by fellow fighters’ gains in the civil war in neighboring Syria, have tried to position themselves as the champions of Iraqi Sunnis angry at the Shiite-led government over what they see as efforts to marginalize them.
On Sunday, some government offices in Ramadi opened under tight security and civil servants returned to work, councilman Faleh al-Issawi said. Al-Issawi added that gunmen are still in control of some parts of Ramadi.
In a sign of U.S. concern over the situation, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk traveled to Iraq to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top Iraqi political leaders. McGurk wrapped up his trip Sunday.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that McGurk emphasized that the U.S. “will provide all necessary and appropriate assistance to the government of Iraq.” Washington has ruled out sending U.S. troops back in but recently delivered dozens of Hellfire missiles to help bolster Iraqi forces. It has promised to send more missiles as well as surveillance drones.
Violence has escalated in Iraq over the past year. Last year, the country saw the highest death toll since the worst of the country’s sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.
The U.S. Embassy also said McGurk visited Friday with members of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the militant wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose camp outside Baghdad came under rocket attack last month. The statement said the U.S. diplomat stressed the urgency of relocating the residents of Camp Hurriya to another country.
The dissident group, which opposes Iran’s clerical regime, joined forces with Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001, and was removed from a U.S. terrorist list last year.
Iraq’s current Shiite-led government, which has strong ties with neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran, considers the MEK’s presence in Iraq illegal and is eager to get rid of them. The refugee camp is home to about 3,100 people.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.
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