Violence across Iraq claimed 44 lives Tuesday, including those of two women killed when guards in a security convoy fired on their car at an intersection in central Baghdad.
Witnesses told police the guards were in a convoy of four SUVs commonly used by private security companies and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.
The U.S. State Department said the convoy was not protecting U.S. diplomats, but an embassy spokeswoman said an American nongovernmental organization may have been involved.
While there was no indication that Blackwater USA was involved, the attack threatened to increase calls for limits on the security firms. The way the firms operate has been in question since the Sept. 16 shooting deaths of as many as 17 Iraqi civilians.
Officials with the U.S.-based security company said its employees were acting in self-defense in the incident.
In other violence, suicide car bombings targeting a local police chief and a Sunni sheik who work with U.S. forces killed at least 19 people.
Police Say Women Tried to Stop
The women who were killed were in a white car that drove into the Masbah intersection in the central Karradah district as the convoy of three white and one gray SUVs was stopped about 100 yards away, according to a policeman who witnessed the shooting from a nearby checkpoint.
The men in the SUVs threw a smoke bomb in an apparent bid to warn the car against coming forward, said Riyadh Majid, the policeman. The woman driving the car tried to stop, but she was killed along with the passenger when two of the guards in the convoy opened fire, Majid said.
The pavement where the attack occurred was stained with blood and covered with shattered glass from the car windows.
He said the convoy then raced away and Iraqi police came to collect the bodies and tow the car to the local police station.
Another policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said the guards were masked and wearing khaki uniforms. He said one of them left the vehicle and started to shoot at the car while another opened fire from the open back door of a separate SUV.
The victims were identified by relatives and police as Marou Awanis, born in 1959, as Geneva Jalal, born in 1977.
Sunni Insurgents' Ramadan Offensive
The nearly simultaneous attacks in Beiji were the deadliest in a series of bombings in recent days as the Sunni-led insurgency apparently steps up its promised Ramadan offensive as the end of the Islamic holy month draws near.
The attackers in the oil hub 155 miles north of Baghdad drove a minibus laden with explosives into the house of a local police chief and detonated an explosives-packed Toyota Land Cruiser outside the home of a leading member of the local Awakening Council, a group of Iraqis who have turned against extremists in the area.
A Sunni mosque about 100 yards away from the police chief's house was damaged and three of its guards were among at least 19 people killed, according to police and hospital officials.
Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said the police chief, Col. Saad al-Nifoos, and the Sunni tribal official, Sheik Hamad al-Jibouri, survived.
The U.S. military said the targeted Awakening Council leader was Samir Ibrahim, not Sheik Hamad. It also said Ibrahim and the police chief had survived.
Beiji is in the Sunni province of Salahuddin, which along with the vast Anbar province to the west is part of Iraq's Sunni heartland. The heartland has been the home base for the Sunni-led insurgency, but the U.S. military has cited recent success in getting local tribal leaders to join forces against the terror network.
"This is yet another failed attempt to break the will of the Iraqi people who just want to go on with their lives without violence, raise their children, earn a living and coexist together in a peaceful manner," said Lt. Col. Michael O. Donnelly, military spokesman for northern Iraq.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press