BAGHDAD, Iraq – Car bombs and drive-by shootings on Thursday killed at least 17 people — including two U.S. soldiers — in a series of attacks around central Iraq, officials said.
The U.S. command said the first soldier died from wounds in the early morning hours after his unit same under attack by small arms, while the second was killed after his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad. At least 2,673 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The attacks came after day that was especially bloody even by Baghdad's standards, when car bombs, mortars and other attacks killed at least 39 people and wounded dozens. Police also uncovered the tortured bodies of 65 men dumped in and around the capital.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq on Thursday said there was a spike in sectarian violence around Baghdad over past 24 hours.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said the spike came from "murder-executions" and was probably the result of an increase in sectarian violence around Baghdad.
"There was a spike in violence in Baghdad ober the past 24 hours from murder-executions," Caldwell said. "Most of tose are assocaited with sectarian violence, not all necessarily but a large portion."
The violence persists despite a monthlong security operation by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops around Baghdad aimed mostly at stopping the killings carried out by Sunni and Shiite death squads.
A car bomb Thursday targeting a police patrol in a Shiite neighborhood of northern Baghdad missed, instead killing a civilian and wounding 13 others, police said.
Another car bomb then blew up bear the government's passport office in central Baghdad, killing nine people and wounding 17. The injured included four police officers,said police Lt. Bilal Ali.
The blast created a large crater in the street in front of the office, destroyed at least three cars, scattered debris and knocked down the walls of a neighboring house, according to AP Television News video.
Gunmen in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killed two police officers in a drive-by shooting. Another group of gunmen shot and killed three people in Ghazaniya, just north of Baqouba.
Police also found the body of a brigadier in the former Iraqi army two days after he was kidnapped Mahmoudiya, 19 miles south of Baghdad, said Cap. Udai Abdel-Rihda.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military said its forces have arrested a senior Al Qaeda figure and personal associate of the group's new leader.
The man, who was not identified, was arrested Tuesday and led assassination, kidnapping and bomb-making cells in Baghdad, Caldwell said.
He also played a key role in Al Qaeda's activities in Fallujah before it was attacked by U.S. troops in November 2004, Caldwell added.
According to Caldwell he was a "personal associate" of Abu Ayyoub al-Masri, who took over al-Qaida in Iraq from Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after he was killed in a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad on June 7.
After the discovery of the bodies Wednesday, the head of Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political bloc called on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to honor a pledge to disband militias — blamed by Sunnis of being behind many of the death squads.
An influential Sunni Arab political party said that U.S. forces raided its Baghdad headquarters early Thursday and briefly detained one of its legislators.
Ahmed al-Janabi a spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, a Sunni party that is part the Iraqi Accordance Front — a Sunni Arab coalition — said U.S. forces broke into the group's offices in western Baghdad and detained and interrogated deputy Abdel-Nasir al-Janabi for two hours. The party has 12 deputies in the 275-seat parliament.
The reasons for the raid were not clear and coalition forces had no immediate comment, but al-Janabi alleged the raid seemed to be "an American message to the groups and lawmakers who demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq."
Earlier in the week, a group of Shiite and Sunni legislators tried to take advantage of the unpopularity of U.S. troops to seek approval of a resolution setting a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops — which the mainstream Shiite-dominated government has so far refused to do. The resolution was sent to committee — essentially shelving it for months.
Sunni Arabs fear more sectarian violence will break out if the largest Shiite political bloc in parliament succeeds is passing legislation that will set in place the mechanism for establishing autonomous regions as part of a federal Iraq.
Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani urged that a bill drafted last week by the dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance not to be submitted to the body on Sept. 19. Instead he has called for its postponement until parliament amends the country's new constitution, a time consuming affair that could drag on for months.
Sunni Arabs have said the bill could split the country into three distinct sectarian and ethnic cantons and have vehemently opposed it.
Although federalism is part Iraq's new constitution, and there is already an autonomous Kurdish region in the north, special legislation and a referendum would be needed to turn Iraq into a full federation.
Alliance leaders were sending delegations to the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Thursday to meet radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other leaders who do not fully support the legislation — but for different reasons than the Sunnis. Al-Sadr, for examples, wants it to be discussed after U.S. troops leave Iraq.