More Suicide Bombers Make Deadly Attacks in Iraq

Violence continues in Iraq, where two suicide bombers struck in the town of Hilla, south of the capital, killing at least 27 people. Also, Iraqi troops and police battled insurgents in the streets of Baghdad in a new government offensive.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In Iraq today, more than 30 people were killed in another round of fighting and attacks. Most of the casualties--at least 27 dead and 118 wounded, according to Iraqi police--were in the town of Hillah south of Baghdad. A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowd gathered outside government offices there.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi security operation continued in Baghdad with no clear sign of the promised 40,000 Iraqi troops and policemen. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the Iraqi capital.

And, Peter, let's talk first about the suicide attacks in Hillah. Who was targeted there?

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, there was a crowd outside the government offices there. Some were lining up for jobs, some were special commandos on the police forces holding a rally, a demonstration. It was a large crowd, in the hundreds, and police there said that one of the suicide bombers pushed his way into the crowd and detonated his charge. And then less than a minute later, as the crowd began to scatter, another bomb went off. The claim of responsibility came from the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, although these Internet claims are often impossible to authenticate.

BLOCK: Hillah was the scene of a very large attack not too long ago.

KENYON: It was, and there's been a concern even when this major operation was recently announced for the capital here in Baghdad, some of the Iraqis we spoke with said, `Well, yes, it's overdue, but you know what's going to happen is that the terrorists will just go elsewhere.' And it seems today elsewhere was Hillah.

BLOCK: Let's turn to the security operation that we mentioned in Baghdad itself, no clear sign of the 40,000 Iraqi troops that were supposed to be helping with that?

KENYON: No, not at all. And as one US intelligence officer said yesterday to reporters, `Well, you're not going to see all 40,000 of them out at once.' There's some question as to whether they can even muster a full 40,000, but there are checkpoints, there are sweeps going district by district here. We've had some accounts of steadfast fighting, repelling attacks by insurgents. We've had other accounts of a few soldiers or policemen taking their uniforms off and leaving the scene of battle, which brings back some bad memories of previous encounters involving Iraqi forces. So far the good reports seem to be outweighing the bad, but the Americans will be paying a lot of attention to how the Iraqi forces do in this major operation here in Baghdad. We did have one cryptic report today about an aircraft, an Iraqi air force aircraft, crashing in eastern Diyala province today. All we know is that it was carrying one Iraqi and four Americans; no details on why it crashed or the condition of those on board.

BLOCK: There was also the arrest today of a well-known Sunni political leader who was arrested, taken from his home by US forces. The Iraqi government's said to be very upset about that. What can you tell us about what happened?

KENYON: Well, according to officials with the Iraqi Islamic Party, it's a Sunni group, US forces seized their secretary-general, Dr. Mohsen Abdul Hamid, from his home in a pre-dawn raid. They took his sons, his bodyguards, some computers. He's a man in his sixties, reputation as a moderate, and this is a group that's been seeking to increase Sunni participation in the political process. The detention lasted only a few hours. The US issued a terse statement saying he was being returned home and that it had all been a mistake, and it regretted any inconvenience.

BLOCK: Would the mistake have been the result, then, of misinformation, disinformation, some party with something to gain by his arrest?

KENYON: I think that's what Iraqi leaders are talking about. They're talking about investigating who may be spreading false information about Dr. Abdul Hamid, as they put it, that may have led to him being picked up. But for the Iraqi leadership, this whole event is bad on at least a couple of fronts. It exacerbates Sunni-Shiite tensions at exactly the wrong time; that is to say, when Iraqi security forces are cracking down on insurgents in Baghdad, which, of course, means cracking down on Sunnis in Baghdad. It also makes the Iraqi leaders look out of the loop, not in charge of their own government; they didn't know what was going on. And that's just the opposite of the image US military and embassy officials have been trying so hard to project in recent weeks.

BLOCK: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Baghdad. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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