KERBALA, Iraq - A car bomb outside a mosque in central Iraq killed at least 23 people and wounded 46 on Wednesday, targeting Shi'ite Muslims in an apparent sectarian attack as the holy month of Ramadan drew to a close.
Earlier several roadside bombs and shootings killed at least a dozen people, mostly in Baghdad, and a US Marine helicopter came down in Ramadi, killing both crew members. US forces launched an air strike near the crash site and a local doctor said there were dozens of casualties.
With six weeks to go before parliamentary elections that Washington hopes will set Iraq on the path to stability, the Iraqi government issued an appeal to former junior officers in Saddam Hussein's military to return to the colours two years after they were fired by the US occupiers.
The car bomb in the mainly Shi'ite town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad, came as people were preparing for the three-day Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Eid should start on Thursday or Friday, with a possible lag between Sunni and Shi'ite rites.
The Interior Ministry said 23 people had been killed in the attack, which used a remotely detonated car bomb.
Musayyib has been hit by several attacks, including one in July when a suicide bomber blew up a fuel truck, killing at least 98 people and wounding 75.
The town sits on a fault line between the Shi'ite and the Sunni communities in an area where Saddam resettled many of his supporters on rich farmland south of the capital.
Iraq's Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government and its US backers are battling a Sunni Arab insurgency that has killed thousands of people since the March 2003 US-led invasion.
US commanders have warned of a rise in bloodshed in the run-up to the December 15 election.
In a statement issued on the eve of the main annual Muslim holiday, Defence Minister Saadoun Dulaimi, one of the few Sunnis in the government, invited former officers with the ranks of major, captain and lieutenant to return to the army.
With the election looming, there may be a political as well as practical security motive behind the move. The loss of army pay has been a major source of discontent among Saddam's fellow minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated the officer corps.
Senior officers, many of whom are regarded as having been too close to Saddam's Baath party, were not invited back en masse, though some have returned to lead the new Iraqi military.
Within weeks of Saddam's fall in April 2003, US administrator Paul Bremer disbanded at a stroke Iraq's 400,000- strong armed forces and security agencies.
US officials said it simply formalised the fact that the army had evaporated in the aftermath of the war, with soldiers deserting in huge numbers.
Washington is racing to build up a new Iraqi army to let it bring home American troops who are pinned down in Iraq by insurgents displaying considerable military experience.
The plight of the hundreds of thousands of unemployed former soldiers has been a rallying point for Sunni complaints that the ruling Shi'ites and Kurds are neglecting their interests.
After most Sunnis boycotted an election in January, they seem likely to turn out in force at the December 15 ballot; US and Iraqi officials hope this engagement in the political process can undermine popular support for the insurgency.
But the violence continued to claim lives on Wednesday: two separate roadside bombs in Baghdad killed five Iraqi soldiers and five civilians; a policeman was shot elsewhere in Baghdad and another soldier killed by a bomb in Falluja.
Two US Marines were killed when their Super Cobra helicopter crashed in the area of Ramadi west of Baghdad, the military said. The cause of the crash was under investigation but witnesses reported it had come under fire from the ground.
A doctor in Ramadi, Taled Dulaimi, said 35 people were later killed in air strikes in the area where the helicopter crashed. There was no independent confirmation of casualties.
The US military said a fighter jet dropped two 500-lbs bombs on "a reported insurgent command centre" around 500 metres from where the helicopter crashed.
"No casualty information is known at this time," it said in a statement.
US commanders have frequently accused local doctors in western Iraq of misrepresenting casualty figures.
US forces have conducted a series of offensives in western Iraq to choke off what they say is a supply route for foreign fighters coming through Syria into Iraq to fuel the insurgency.
In pre-dawn air strikes on Wednesday, the military said US-led coalition air forces had bombed three al Qaeda safe houses in the area of Qusayba, which is near the Syrian border, and at least six insurgents had been reported killed.
Doctor Hazim al-Ani in Qusayba said 15 Iraqis were killed and seven wounded in the air strikes but the figures could not be independently verified.