Bombs in Baghdad Kill at Least 9, Wound 39

Two bombs exploded within minutes of each other in north Baghdad Wednesday, killing at least nine people and wounding 39, police said, a day after the president predicted the bloodshed would be mostly over by the end of next year.

The explosions, one a parked car bomb and another a roadside bomb, were targeting a passing Iraqi army patrol at a busy intersection during the morning rush hour as people headed to work, police 1st Lt. Mohammed Khayun said.

The car bomb had been parked in front of a tire repair shop, witness Abdel-Majeed Salah, a local resident, told AP television. He said a minibus with passengers on board had been behind the parked car when it detonated, and all on board had been killed.

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Two of the dead and eight of the wounded were Iraqi soldiers, police said.

In northeastern Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a procession of pilgrims heading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, killing one and wounded two, police 1st Lt. Ali Abbas said.

Tens of thousands of people are expected in Karbala, 50 miles south of the capital, on Sept. 9 to observe Shaaban, a mid-month religious celebration. Many of the pilgrims travel to the city on foot.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombings, shootings and mortar and rocket attacks in sectarian violence that has surged this year.

On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament resumed after its summer recess and voted to extend a state of emergency for a month. The measure, which has been in place for almost two years, covers every area except the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and grants security forces the power to impose curfews and make arrests without warrants.

It has been renewed every month since first being authorized in November 2004, hours before U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a big offensive to drive insurgents out of Fallujah, one of the main cities in the restive Anbar region west of Baghdad.

President Jalal Talabani expressed optimism on Tuesday that fighting would stop before the end of 2007, and he said Iraqi forces will be able to handle any remaining violence.

"I don't think fighting will continue until then if the steps of national reconciliation go according to plan," he said after meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. "If some groups are still fighting, our forces will be able to take care of it."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's reconciliation plan seeks to bridge religious, ethnic and political divisions that have been tearing at Iraq with daily violence.

The plan includes an offer of amnesty to members of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency not involved in terrorist activities, calls for disarming primarily Shiite sectarian militias and promises compensation for families of Iraqis killed by U.S. and government forces.

Asked by reporters when Britain's 7,000 soldiers might be able to leave Iraq, Talabani said "by the end of 2007."

"We've achieved good success in building our forces and equipping them with the necessary arms," he said, adding that "once violence declines, we will not need the presence of multinational forces in Iraq."

But Beckett cautioned that Talabani was "not setting a deadline" for troop withdrawal.

"That's the president's personal opinion," she said, adding that "the circumstances will be the judge of everything."

Earlier, Beckett met with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and stressed the importance of transferring security from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqi forces. The handover is a key part of any eventual drawdown of international troops in the country.

"There has been responsibility that has been transferred already and we hope and believe that that is a process that will continue," Beckett said, adding it was "absolutely key that we see that responsibility being able to be exercised by the representatives of the elected government of Iraq."

British troops handed over control of southern Muthanna province in July, and another southern province, Dhi Qar, is to follow this month.

But a disagreement emerged over the handover of Iraq's armed forces command when a ceremony marking the transfer was called off at the last minute Saturday.

Although neither side would elaborate on the exact reason, the Defense Ministry said it was necessary "to complete some legal and protocol procedures that will lead to a complete understanding between the Iraqi government and the multinational troops."

Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the prime minister, told the British Broadcasting Corp. the ceremony would be held Thursday.

A dispute over Iraq's flag also showed no sign of abating.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, angered many in Baghdad with his decision Friday to replace the Iraqi national flag with the Kurdish banner. The Kurdish region has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a worrying development to many Iraqi leaders, especially Sunni Arabs.

Iraq's first interim Governing Council after the fall of Saddam Hussein decided to change the country's flag, but no official version has been adopted.

Talabani, a Kurd himself, said the media had blown the issue out of proportion. He said the current Iraqi flag "is the flag of (Saddam's) Baath Party" and that Kurds have always worked toward national unity.

"The Kurds are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution," he said.