A suicide car bomb exploded near a market in Baghdad on Thursday, killing 12 people in the latest in a frenzy of guerrilla attacks that have killed 400 since a new government promising stability was named two weeks ago.
The blast, which police said also wounded 56 people, followed a series of suicide bomb attacks on Wednesday that killed at least 71 people.
The death toll from suicide bombings and other attacks has been rising sharply since Iraq announced its first democratically elected cabinet on April 28.
Flames and black smoke rose skywards over mangled market stalls and cars in the mostly Shi’ite Muslim New Baghdad district after the blast. Frantic young men, some crying, pushed wooden carts carrying charred bodies of women and men.
"There are families in the building. Most of them are wounded," an ambulance worker yelled over a mobile telephone.
Sunni insurgents have been stepping up attacks on Shi’ite targets over the last two weeks, raising fears that Iraq could plunge towards sectarian civil war.
The Jan. 30 polls have dramatically changed Iraq’s power structure after decades of Sunni Arab rule under toppled leader Saddam Hussein. Once oppressed Shi’ites and Kurds are the new holders of power and Sunni Arabs have been sidelined, holding only 17 seats in the 275-member parliament.
Islamist Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Kurdish leaders are hoping to give Sunnis a prominent role in government in a bid to defuse the Sunni-led insurgency.
Under the strategy, a Sunni former exile, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, now heads the Defence Ministry. But guerrilla assassinations of security officials show no signs of easing.
An official who works in the defence ministry’s operations centre was assassinated by gunmen in southwestern Baghdad early on Thursday, an interior ministry official said.
Brigadier Ayad Imad Mehdi was killed when three insurgents stopped his car and shot him dead before fleeing.
Gunmen also killed an interior ministry official, Colonel Muhammad al-Taie, in a separate attack, police said.
Guerrillas also target ordinary Iraqis who co-operate with government security forces or US troops. Witnesses said gunmen killed two Iraqis in the northern town of Samarra for selling bread to Iraqi soldiers.
Iraqis who braved suicide bombings to vote in the elections expected to be rewarded with new leaders who improved security forces after two years of bloody chaos.
But Iraqi forces who have lost hundreds of comrades can barely protect themselves, raising questions over when resented US forces who are training them will leave the country.
American Marines and Soldiers are pressing ahead with operations in the western Anbar province designed to root out insurgents and foreign fighters, who are suspected of carrying out many of the suicide bombings.
Two US Marines were killed on Wednesday when their armoured vehicle drove over a mine in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border during the offensive, Operation Matador, the US Military said on Thursday. The military said 14 Marines were wounded in the blast.
Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, at least 1231 US military and Pentagon personnel have been killed in action in Iraq. Including non-combat deaths the toll is 1609.
Insurgents are also keeping up the pressure on US allies in Iraq, snatching two more foreign hostages -- an Australian engineer captured in Baghdad in late April and a Japanese security contractor seized on Sunday in western Iraq.
The captors of Australian hostage Douglas Wood, 63, demanded that Australia pull its troops out of Iraq by Tuesday.
Canberra insisted it would not negotiate with kidnappers and the deadline passed with no word on his fate.
Last week, Wood’s captors released video footage showing him looking distraught as two masked gunmen pointed rifles at him. His head had been shaven and he appeared to have a black eye.
The Japanese hostage, 44-year-old Akihiko Saito, was captured when a foreign security convoy was ambushed in western Iraq on Sunday evening. Army of Ansar al-Sunna, one of Iraq’s most feared insurgent groups, said it was holding Saito.