BAGHDAD, Iraq – A barrage of coordinated bomb and rocket attacks across eastern Baghdad neighborhoods killed at least 55 people and wounded more than 200 within about half an hour, police said Friday.
The latest spasm of violence on Thursday evening — which included explosives planted in apartments, car bombs and several rocket and mortar attacks on mainly Shiite neighborhoods — came even as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces should have control over most of the country by year's end.
The toll from the Baghdad bombings stood at 55 people dead and 206 wounded, police Capt. Mohammed Abdul-Ghani said Friday morning.
The attacks — centered on neighborhoods controlled by Shiite militias, some of which Sunni Arabs accuse of running death squads — brought Thursday's death toll across the country to at least 76.
Attackers rented apartments and shops in buildings a few days ago and planted explosives in them, detonating them by remote control almost simultaneously Thursday evening, Maj. Gen. Jihad Liaabi, director of the Interior Ministry's counterterrorism unit, told state television late Thursday night.
The attacks occurred between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and included a car bomb at a market, another behind a telephone exchange building and several rocket and mortar attacks, police said.
On Friday morning, residents picked through the rubble of their homes, using blankets to carry their belongings out. Large chunks of concrete and burned out cars littered the street.
Kindi hospital — one of four where the wounded and dead were taken — received dozens of casualties. In one room, doctors wheeled a man with a bandaged leg on a gurney out of a room.
"Slowly, slowly," he pleaded, crying in pain.
A young boy, his head and right leg heavily bandaged, his pillow bloodstained, pleaded for a glass of water.
Haidar Nassier, a resident of al-Ameen district, said an explosion had ripped through a clothes store in his neighborhood of al-Ameen.
"My neighbor, four of his children were injured, and one of them died," he told AP television outside the hospital.
Earlier Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed two people at a gas station, while a British Embassy convoy was targeted in the upscale Mansour neighborhood in western Baghdad. Two passers-by were wounded in the convoy attack, police said.
The bloodshed was part of a violent week that has left hundreds of Iraqis dead.
The U.S. military also announced that two American soldiers and a Marine were killed Wednesday. According to an Associated Press count, that death brings to 18 the number of U.S. soldiers killed since Sunday.
But authorities said they were optimistic about the handover of security control.
Al-Maliki said Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for Dhi Qar province in the south in September, making it the second of Iraq's 18 provinces that local forces would take control over.
"This makes us optimistic and proud because we managed to fulfill our promise," al-Maliki said. Iraqi authorities took over Muthanna province in the south from the British in July.
Dhi Qar is populated mainly by Shiite Muslims. Compared to more volatile areas, such as Anbar province in the west and Baghdad, it has been spared much of the sectarian violence. However, U.S. commanders recently expressed concern about the growing influence of Shiite militias in the area, many of whom they say receive support from Iran.
"This year will witness the handing over of other provinces, and we hope that by the end of the year, our security forces will take over most of the Iraqi provinces," al-Maliki said.
The Defense Ministry said it would sign a memorandum with coalition forces on Saturday "about strategic control and operations." U.S. authorities said the Defense Ministry would begin assuming direct operational control of the country's armed forces.
Handing over territory from coalition control to Iraqi control is a key part of any eventual drawdown of U.S. troops in the country.
On Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said Iraqi troops were on course to take over security control from U.S.-led coalition forces over the next 12-18 months with little coalition help.
U.S. President George W. Bush insisted American troops must remain in Iraq until the country's forces are capable of full control.
"If America were to pull out before Iraq could defend itself, the consequences would be absolutely predictable, and absolutely disastrous," Bush said as he began a pre-election series of speeches in the United States.
"We would be handing Iraq over to our worst enemies — Saddam's former henchmen, armed groups with ties to Iran and al-Qaida terrorists from all over the world who would suddenly have a base of operations far more valuable than Afghanistan under the Taliban," he said.
Despite the rash of violence during the past week, U.S. officials have lauded the results of a security crackdown in the capital that they say has resulted in a dramatic fall in sectarian killings. They reported the murder rate in Baghdad dropped almost 50 percent in August compared to July, but that figure could not be independently confirmed.
The crackdown by Iraqi and U.S. forces began Aug. 7, targeting some of the capital's most problematic neighborhoods. In the past, similar operations have lowered violence for short periods of time, but attacks then escalate after American forces leave.