BAGHDAD, Iraq – Powerful bombs ripped through markets in two Iraqi cities at dusk Monday, killing at least 40 people and wounding 89. The attacks hit Baqouba and Hillah just hours after two key lawmakers told The Associated Press that Sunni Arab insurgent groups had contacted the government about joining a reconciliation effort.
The deadliest attack — a bicycle bombing in Baqouba, the Sunni insurgent stronghold 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad — killed at least 25 and wounded 33, according to police officials in the city who speak only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Minutes earlier a marketplace blast in Hillah, a mainly Shiite city 90 kilometers (65 miles) south of the capital, killed at least 15 people and wounded 56, said police Capt. Muthana Khalid.
Both markets were jammed with shoppers buying dinner provisions as temperatures began to cool after sunset.
Police reports from across the country Monday listed at least 22 other deaths, victims of sectarian murders or bomb and shooting attacks.
Despite the fresh opening from the militant organizations — which do not include al-Qaida in Iraq or other Islamic extremists terror groups — a key Iraqi commander said Baghdad's forces would not be ready to keep the peace in Anbar province — the insurgent heartland — for at least a year.
Brig Gen. Jaleel Khalf's said his one-year estimate was what he termed "optimistic under the best of circumstances."
And it closely aligned with recent forecasts from the U.S. military.
"I don't think by this winter we'll be quite ready to turn over completely" to Iraqi forces, Army Col. Sean MacFarland said recently. He commands the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division that oversees Ramadi, the capital of Anbar and the lynchpin of the insurgency. Ramadi, population 400,000 is Iraq's largest Sunni city.
MacFarland's comments were echoed in a New York Times interview published Monday with Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who oversees Marines in the Middle East and Central Asia.
"I see no reductions in American forces in Anbar into next year, at least through next summer, because of the restiveness there," Sattler was quoted as saying.
"Anbar is going to be one of the last provinces to be stabilized," Sattler said.
Khalf said he figured the Iraqi army would need about 15,000 soldiers to properly control the vast province that spreads like a fan from Baghdad to the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Syrian borders. The Iraqi Defense Ministry says it currently has about 12,000 soldiers in Anbar.
"If our forces are built on a proper foundation and equipped with modern weapons and materials such as heavy artillery, mortars, and new light weapons that are held by the world's modern armies, we could take over security in Anbar in about a year," he said.
Iraqi military preparedness has come under intense focus in recent days after reports that Gen. George W. Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, had developed a withdrawal plan that could see American troop strength reduced by two brigades in September. Beyond that, the plan was said to include cutting total American forces, now at about 127,000, by about half at the end of 2007.
President Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, however, played down the reports — which could initially see a reduction of as many as 7,000 troops.
"I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, `Well, they're going to pull two brigades out,"' Snow said.
The president himself on Monday brushed aside expectations of a significant troop drawdown starting in September. He said decisions on troop strength would be made by the new Iraqi government and based upon recommendations from Casey.
The seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups that approached the government about joining a reconciliation effort were motivated in part by fear of undue Iranian influence in the country, according to Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, a close associate of President Jalal Talabani, who held face-to-face talks with seven unidentified insurgent organizations about two months ago.
The insurgent contact came a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disclosed the national reconciliation plan, which offered amnesty to opposition fighters who had not killed Iraqis, were not involved in terrorism and had not committed crimes against humanity.
Al-Maliki's plan was thought to have denied amnesty to any insurgent who had killed American forces, although the wording was vague.
The approach by the seven groups, most thought to be populated by former members or backers of Saddam Hussein's government, military or security agencies, was first reported by Hassan al-Suneid, a lawmaker and member of the political bureau of al-Maliki's Dawa Party.
He said Al-Maliki was considering a possible meeting with leaders of the groups or contacts through intermediaries.
Al-Suneid gave the names of six of the seven organizations that approached the government, listing them as: The 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mohammed Army, Abtal al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), the 9th of April Group, Al-Fatah Brigades, the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces.
"I expect that those groups are the same ones that have made contacts with President Talabani, and now they are widening the range of their contacts. Now they are more serious after the announcement of the (reconciliation) plan," al-Suneid told AP.
Othman said the groups said they also sought talks with U.S. forces.
"They want negotiation with the Americans. The seven groups have real fears of the Iranian influence. They think that the Americans will eventually leave, but Iran is a neighbor and is not going anywhere," he said.
The United States, many Iraqis and Arabs throughout the Middle East claim that Iran, a majority Shiite country run by a fundamentalist theocracy, has undue influence in Iraq, also a majority Shiite nation. Many Iraqi Shiites, both religious and political leaders in the post-Saddam Hussein era, spent years in exile in Iran.
The contact by the insurgent organizations would mark an important potential shift and could stand as evidence of a growing divide between Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and the more brutal and ideological fighters of al-Qaida in Iraq, who are believed to mainly be non-Iraqi Islamic militants.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, the terrorist umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, issued an Internet statement late Wednesday rejecting al-Maliki's reconciliation plan.
"The servant of the crusaders, Nouri al-Maliki, has come forward with a new, sinister project aimed at extracting his crusader overlords from their morass." The statement said the plan was designed to "try to save face and lighten the blow of defeat that has become an unavoidable reality."
Among the seven groups that reportedly have sought a conditional truce, the 1920 Revolution Brigades operates primarily in Anbar province. The organization claims its operations have only been conducted against U.S. forces. They and other insurgents were said to have protected polling places against attacks by other insurgent groups in Anbar province during December parliamentary voting.
The Mohammed Army is made up of former members of Saddam's Baath party, members of his elite Republican Guards and former military commanders. It, too, has focused attacks on the U.S. military and played a role in the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
"The groups have said they are ready to lay down their arms, but they have some conditions. The Al-Maliki initiative could help them to enter the political process," Othman said. He would not detail the insurgents' conditions.
Also Monday, 10 Sunni students, all males at the Iraqi Technology University in eastern Baghdad, were kidnapped. Gunmen rousted the students from their dormitory rooms, police Lt. Thayer Mahmoud said.
The Ministry of Migration and Displacement said 21,731 families or about 130,000 people had been forced to leave their homes because of sectarian and ethnic conflicts since the Feb.22 bombing of the revered Shiite shrine in Samara which took the country to the brink of civil war between minority Sunnis and Shiites, who are the dominant power since the ouster of Saddam's Sunni-based Baathist regime.