BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite prime minister promised Sunday to reshuffle his Cabinet after calling lawmakers disloyal and blaming Sunni Muslims for raging sectarian violence that claimed at least 159 more lives, including 35 men blown apart while waiting to join Iraq's police force.
Among the unusually high number of dead were 50 bodies found behind a regional electrical company in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and 25 others found scattered throughout the capital. Three U.S. troops were reported killed, as were four British service members.
In the bombing targeting police recruits, two men detonated explosives strapped to their bodies simultaneously, police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq said. The attack, killing 35 men outside the police station near western Baghdad's Nissur Square, was one of several blasts in the capital.
Police and police recruits, who are largely Shiite Muslims, have been regularly targeted by Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist organizations aligned with it.
Also Sunday, the country's Sunni defense minister challenged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's contention that the U.S. military should quickly pull back into bases and let the Iraqi army take control of security countrywide.
Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi rejected calls by al-Maliki for the U.S. military to speed transfer of security operations throughout the country to the Iraqi army, saying his men still were too poorly equipped and trained to do the job.
"We are working hard to create a real army and we ask our government not to try to move too quickly because of the political pressure it feels. Our technical needs are real and that is very important, if we are to be a real force against insecurity," al-Obaidi said.
Al-Maliki wants the Americans confined to bases for him to call on in emergencies, but he boldly predicted his army could crush violence within six months if left alone to do the work.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey last month said it would take 12 to 18 months before Iraq's army was ready to take control of the country with some U.S. backup.
Key lawmakers from al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party said that in the coming Cabinet shake up, which the prime minister promised during a closed-door parliament session Sunday, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani was at the top of the list to lose his post because police and security forces were failing to quell the unbridled sectarian killing that has reached civil war proportions in Baghdad and the center of the country.
Al-Bolani, a Shiite who was chosen in June and a month after al-Maliki's government was formed, is an independent. The United States demanded that the defense and interior posts be held by officials without ties to the Shiite political parties that control militia forces.
Al-Maliki is under pressure both from his people and the United States to curb violence, with Washington leaning on him to disband Shiite militias believed responsible, through their death squads, for much of the killings.
Al-Maliki is dependent on both Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, with its Badr Brigade military wing, and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political movement for his hold on power.
The interior minister controls police and other security forces which already are infiltrated by the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of al-Sadr's political movement.
After nearly 48 hours without reporting a death, the U.S. military said three soldiers assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died Saturday of combat wounds in Anbar Province, the insurgent stronghold west of the capital. Their deaths raised to 2,848 the number of service members who have had died since the start of the war in March 2003.
Four British servicemen were killed in an attack on a patrol boat in Basra's Shatt al-Arab waterway, southern Iraq, the Ministry of Defense said in London.
In Baqouba, the Iraqi army's provincial public affairs office said troops found 50 bodies dumped behind the offices of the provincial electric company.
Nineteen of the bodies were taken to the morgue in Baqouba and the army was waiting for U.S. bomb disposal teams, fearing the 31 other bodies behind the electrical company were rigged with explosives.
Abdul-Razaq said Baghdad police had found 25 bullet-riddled, handcuffed bodies in several parts of the capital. Dozens more bodies were found around the country.
Al-Maliki confirmed an Associated Press report 10 days ago about the coming government shake-up during a closed-door parliament session in which he responded to public charges by lawmakers that the government was complicit in the killing of members of the Sunni minority, two parliamentarians told AP.
Some Shiites had complained al-Maliki was being unduly harsh in dealing with Shiite militia members. Al-Maliki told the lawmakers that their speeches were affecting the security situation, according to Shiite legislator Bassem al-Sharif.
Dhafer al-Ani, of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, told AP that al-Maliki's comments "were disappointing because they were sidelining (Sunnis) and included threats." In remarks earlier in the week, al-Maliki blamed Sunnis alone for Iraq's violence.
On Saturday, al-Maliki told editors of local newspapers that Syria, which the U.S. and his government accuse of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq, wants to start afresh with Iraq.
"We have the same desire," al-Maliki said in a videotape of the remarks to Iraqi journalists on Saturday.
Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Labib Abbawi said Sunday that Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had accepted an invitation to visit Iraq, though no date was set.
The opening to Syria comes with the expected release in the United States of recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
It was believed the commission would recommend trying, among other things, to engage both Syria and Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor.