Children blown up while getting sweets

By Patrick Cockburn

BAGHDAD - A suicide car bomber killed 27 and wounded 67 people, mostly children, when he blew himself up beside a US patrol in east Baghdad. The children were crowding around an American vehicle to receive lollies from soldiers when they were caught by the blast.

Women screamed in anger and rage and distraught relatives filled the street of this poor Shia neighbourhood of Baghdad al-Jedidah as they gathered up the dead and injured. A child's bicycle lay on its side spattered with blood. All that remained of the bomber's car was a blackened engine block.

The explosion was so powerful that it set a nearby house on fire and damaged two others. The children gathered around the US humvee stood little chance. The bomb also killed one and wounded three American soldiers.

"Most of them are children," said a policeman speaking of the dead and injured taken to the nearby Kindi hospital.

"The Americans were handing out sweets at the time of the attack."

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has made clear in internet statements - though their authenticity cannot be verified -- that he sees Shia Iraqis as apostates who deserve to be killed just as much as American soldiers.

The attacks on Shia civilians and the tit-for-tat killings of Sunni Arab Iraqis have brought the country close to sectarian warfare.

The American military is likely to be blamed by Iraqis for attracting children close to their vehicles by giving away lollies. Last September 35 Iraqi children were killed by bombs that exploded as American troops were giving out sweets at a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a sewage plant in west Baghdad.

Many Iraqis think that the frequent US military patrols in the capital do no good.

"I feel afraid when I see them," said Arias Kamel, an accountant. "I try to move away from the Americans because of the attacks on them and because those guys are terrified. They are ready to open fire without any reason or because they see a sudden movement."

Most Iraqi adults, on foot or in cars, stay as far as possible from US patrols but children are less wary.

The killing of the children will further deepen sectarian hatred in Baghdad. Sunni Arabs see themselves as being targeted by security services increasingly dominated by Shia since their election victory in January. A Sunni cleric has accused the Interior Ministry police commandos of torturing and executing 12 Sunnis and a Shia they had detained in north Baghdad. A senior official in the Interior Ministry earlier acknowledged that 10 Sunni had suffocated to death in recent days when they were left for hours in the back of a police vehicle as the temperature soared to 45C. He said those responsible would stand trial.

Maj Gen Hussein Kamal, the head of the intelligence department at the Interior Ministry, said the men appear "to have died after the vehicle's engine was turned off, stopping the air conditioning."

The Iraqi government is speaking of the withdrawal of US troops from some cities. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister, said: "We can begin with the process of withdrawing multinational forces from these cities as a first step that encourages setting a timetable for the withdrawal process." But he made clear that he was speaking of cities in the Kurdish far north and the Shia deep south where there has never been much resistance. Against the insurgents he will still rely on the 135,000 US troops.

The government is worried that, without US support, its own army and police would crumple under the weight of an insurgent assault. They cite occasions where the police have fled their police stations and soldiers either refuse to fight or go home.

Dr Mahmoud Othman, an influential Kurdish member of the interim Iraqi parliament, argues that the US presence in cities like Baghdad only exacerbates hatred towards them. He says that, if the Americans left, the insurgents "would no longer have an excuse for fighting".

The US patrols in Baghdad are notoriously trigger-happy and there is a long list of Iraqis they have killed accidentally. Dr Othman says the US troops should leave in two stages, first the cities and then Iraq, but adds that this is unlikely to happen because Mr al-Jaafari has a reputation for doing exactly what the US tells him to do.

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