Dozens killed in Iraq ahead of Ramadan

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BAGHDAD: Dozens were killed in weekend violence across Iraq, officials said Sunday, just days ahead of the start of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan when insurgents typically step up their attacks.

The unrest has fuelled concerns of a deterioration in security here — more than 100 people have died so far this month — amid a massive pullout of American forces and a five-month-long political impasse, although US officers insist Iraqi soldiers and police are up to the task.

In the southern port city of Basra, the death toll rose to 43 from a spate of blasts Saturday evening which officials said were caused by bombs and not a power generator short circuit as first believed.

"We received 43 corpses, and 185 people have been wounded," said Dr. Riyadh Abdelamir, director of Basra province’s health department, adding that women and children were among the wounded.

Ali Al-Maliki, the head of the Basra provincial council’s security committee, said the deaths were caused by coordinated attacks — a double car bombing and a third roadside bomb which caused a large fire in crowded Ashaar market in the centre of Basra, Iraq’s third largest city.

"The attack that hit Basra yesterday evening was the result of terrorist action," said Maliki, who added that the explosions occurred between 7:00 pm and 7:30 pm.

The city’s police command had late Saturday attributed the explosion to the short-circuit of a communal power generator.

On Sunday morning, a suicide bomber detonated a car packed with explosives at a petrol station in the western city of Ramadi, killing six people, medical and security officials said.

The attack appeared to be targeting a nearby post office where local residents were collecting social security payments. Two women and a child were among those killed, while 29 others were wounded.

Ramadi is the capital of Anbar, a Sunni Arab province which was the site of some of the worst violence during the bloody insurgency that blighted Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003. The level of attacks has declined in recent years but security in the province remains precarious.

Also in Anbar, masked gunmen robbed a currency exchange owner and set off their empty explosives-laden car when police tracked them down, killing two people, officials and the victim said.

On Saturday, seven policemen were among eight people killed near Baghdad and in north Iraq, including four who died in a fierce gunfight in a Sunni neighborhood of the capital.

The weekend’s violence comes ahead of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Wednesday or Thursday. In previous years the holy month has coincided with a rise in insurgent activity.

The spate of unrest also comes as US forces reduce troop levels ahead of an August 31 declaration of an end to combat operations here, by which time there will be 50,000 American soldiers in Iraq from around 64,000 currently.

The drawdown advanced further on Saturday when US forces conducted a departure ceremony for the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last combat brigade to leave Iraq.

Politicians in Iraq are meanwhile grappling with a stalemate over the formation of a new government following a March 7 general election, with no new administration expected until after the conclusion of Ramadan in mid-September.

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