Thursday, May 04, 2006

Suicide bomber kills at least 18 in Iraq

Suicide bomber kills at least 18 in Iraq
By Fadil al-Badrani

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - A suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of men waiting to sign up to join the police in the Iraqi city of Falluja on Wednesday, killing at least 18 people, doctors said.

Violence has flared in mainly Sunni Arab Anbar province, with U.S. and Iraqi forces killing over 100 insurgents over the past week in the capital Ramadi and a suicide car bomber killing 10 in an attempt to assassinate the governor on Tuesday.

Parliament, which will soon vote on forming a government of national unity -- seen as the best hope for ending the bloodshed -- began its first normal business session since being elected in December.

But speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani postponed what was to have been the most important task, the selection of a committee to review and amend the constitution, until after a new government is formed and approved by parliament.

"I suggest waiting to form the constitutional committee until the forming of the next government and the situation stabilizes because it is an important issue and needs more negotiation among the blocs," he said.

The once-dominant Sunni minority is more fully represented since abandoning its boycott of the U.S.-backed political process by voting in December. Parliament, beginning a first full four-year term since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is due to sit again next Wednesday.

Shi'ite Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki has said he could have a cabinet line-up ready soon.


Sunni Arabs say the constitution gives too much power to the majority Shi'ites and want it changed, demanding they head the review committee.

Maliki has said he hopes to announce a rainbow coalition to embrace Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, a step seen as vital to quelling the Sunni insurgency and mounting sectarian bloodshed involving guerrillas on all sides.

He has 30 days from April 22 to present a list to the 275-member parliament for its approval.

Politicians involved in the negotiations say agreement may be emerging on the top five ministries -- interior, defense, finance, foreign affairs and oil.

Political blocs say they are using a complex points system based primarily on results from December's election to determine how many ministries are allocated to each grouping.

"The deadline to form the government is May 22, but Nuri al-Maliki has set himself a target of May 9," said Khudheyir al- Khuzai, a member of Maliki's dominant Shi'ite Alliance.

"We are willing to work 20 hours a day to achieve this."

The U.S. military says attacks on civilians have doubled since a Shi'ite mosque was bombed in February and senior Iraqi officials say at least 100,000 have fled their homes.

In what has become a regular occurrence, the bodies of 14 men, with bullet holes and showing signs of torture, were found in Baghdad on Wednesday, police said.

The victims were blindfolded and bound. Twenty such bodies were found in the city on Tuesday, police said.

In Falluja, 60 km (40 miles) west of the capital, doctor Bilal Mahmoud said most of the 20 people wounded in the attack on the police recruits were in a critical condition.

The insurgents have been shifting their focus from U.S. and other foreign troops to Iraq's new army and police force, although American soldiers are still dying at a rate of close to two a day.

The large crowds drawn to recruiting centers are a common target. More than 80 people were killed in an attack on a police recruiting center in Ramadi in January.

The government is keen to expand recruitment in Sunni areas, to reduce perceptions that the army and police are offshoots of the original Shi'ite and Kurdish-led interim government.

In addition to tackling the violence, Maliki's other major task will be to revive an economy shattered by three years of war and insurgency.

Pivotal to that will be the oil industry, losing billions of dollars a year from rebel attacks, corruption and smuggling.

Oil Minister Hashem al-Hashemi told reporters on Wednesday Iraq aimed to increase oil exports to about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) by the end of the year from about 1.5 bpd now and compared with about 1.7 bpd before the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.

Iraq has the world's third-largest oil reserves, but sabotage attacks against pipelines and installations cost it $7 billion in 2005 and $6 billion in 2004.

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Baghdad)