BAGHDAD – Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political bloc announced its withdrawal from the government Wednesday, undermining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to seek reconciliation among the country's rival factions.
Violence continued unabated, with 50 people killed and 60 wounded when a homicide attacker exploded a fuel truck near a gas station in western Baghdad. Another 17 died in a separate car bomb attack in a central region of the capital. The U.S. military announced the deaths of three American soldiers killed by a sophisticated, armor-piercing bomb.
Rafaa al-Issawi, a leading member of the Front, said at a news conference in the capital that the bloc's six Cabinet ministers would submit their resignations later in the day.
Al-Issawi said the decision to pull out from the government followed what he called al-Maliki's failure to respond to a set of demands put forward by the Accordance Front last week, when it gave the prime minister seven days to meet its demands. The ultimatum expired Wednesday.
Among the demands: a pardon for security detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of militias and the participation of all groups represented in the government in dealing with security issues.
"The government is continuing with its arrogance, refusing to change its stand and has slammed shut the door to any meaningful reforms necessary for saving Iraq," al-Issawi said.
"We had hoped that the government would respond to these demands or at least acknowledge the failure of its policies, which led Iraq to a level of misery it had not seen in modern history. But its stand did not surprise us at all," he said, reading from a prepared statement.
The Accordance Front has 44 of parliament's 275 seats. Its withdrawal from the 14-month-old government is the second such action by a faction of al-Maliki's "national unity" coalition.
Five Cabinet ministers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr quit the government in April to protest al-Maliki's reluctance to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Meanwhile, a fuel tanker exploded near a gas station in western Baghdad's primarily Sunni Mansour neighborhood, killing at least 50 people and wounding 60, police said. Two police officers, both speaking on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said the explosion was the work of a homicide attacker.
Earlier, a parked car bomb killed 17 civilians and left a gaping crater in a busy square in central Baghdad, police said. Another 32 people were wounded by the blast, another police officer said on the same condition of anonymity.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the explosion ripped a hole a meter deep and a meter and a half wide in the asphalt. Three minibuses and six cars were damaged by flames and flying debris. Blood pooled in the street.
A gas station and a popular ice cream parlor nearby, which was closed at the time of the attack, also suffered damage. Windows were shattered and benches lay toppled outside. Shrapnel scattered 200 meters from the blast site.
The explosives had been planted in a vehicle in al-Hurriyah square in the mostly Shiite Karradah neighborhood, and detonated around 10:15 a.m., the police officer said.
Thamir Sami, 33, was carrying clothes from his menswear shop out to his car when the explosion shook the area.
"Women and children were lining up near the gas station to get fuel ... I saw burnt bodies. Other motorists and I helped evacuate the wounded before the ambulances came," he said.
The bombing occurred nearly a week after a cluster of explosions, including one from a massive truck bomb, hit the same neighborhood. Karradah had previously been thought to be one of central Baghdad's safest areas. Last Thursday's blasts killed more than 60 people.
The U.S. military on Wednesday announced the deaths of three more soldiers, killed by a sophisticated, armor-piercing bomb in eastern Baghdad.
An explosively-formed penetrator, or EFP, detonated near the soldiers' patrol during combat operations on Tuesday, the military said.
Six other soldiers were wounded. The victims' names were withheld pending family notification.
That brought to 76 the July toll of U.S. deaths in Iraq. It was the lowest monthly count in eight months, as the U.S. military said it was gaining control of former militant strongholds.
Still, it was the deadliest July for U.S. troops since the war began. For the previous three years, the month of July saw a relatively low death toll. In July 2006, 43 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, and 54 died in each of the previous two Julys.
By contrast, July was the second-deadliest month for Iraqis so far this year, according to an Associated Press tally.
In other violence Wednesday, Iraqi police said a parked car bomb killed three people and wounded five in southern Baghdad. The attack occurred in the al-Athouriyn area of Dora, where most residents are Christian.
The U.S. military issued a statement saying its forces had killed three suspects and captured 27 others in raids targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq Tuesday and Wednesday.