BAGHDAD, Iraq – At least a dozen Iraqis and a U.S. soldier were killed in a series of bombings, shootings and ambushes across Iraq on Thursday, but stepped-up security apparently averted even worse bloodshed that had been feared on the holiest day of the year for Shiite Muslims.
On the peak day of the Ashura holiday last year, synchronized suicide bombs set off at crowded Shiite shrines in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala killed at least 181 people. The attacks were part of a campaign against Iraq’s Shiite majority by insurgents, many of them rival Sunni Muslims, aimed at inflaming sectarian conflicts.
Thursday marked the culmination of the 40-day Ashura period, when mournful rites and solemn processions commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, a seventh century Shiite martyr who was the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
In the city of Tuz Khurmatu, about 45 miles south of Kirkuk, Iraqi troops intercepted an explosives-packed car at a checkpoint set up to protect the crowded Husseniya mosque of the Imam Ali. Two soldiers guarding the shrine, and two civilians, including a child, were killed and 16 other people were wounded when the driver set off the bomb.
“The attacker was driving a white Daewoo; he was trying to attack the … mosque, and at that time nearly 2,000 worshipers were at the mosque,” said an Iraqi military official. “But when the attacker reached the checkpoint near the mosque, he was asked to step out of the car to be checked, and he exploded himself.”
To the south in Samarra, a recent hot spot for violence, authorities said they received a tip about a car bomber on the move. A joint patrol of Iraqi commandos and U.S. troops tracked down and surrounded the car, which collided with an American vehicle and exploded, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
The explosion in a public marketplace in the Thubbat neighborhood killed three civilians and the driver and injured 15 others, including nine children, said Lt. Qasim Mohammed of the Iraqi police.
Elsewhere around the country, a civilian died in a mortar attack on an Iraqi military base, and three civilians died in the cross-fire between U.S. troops and gunmen outside the town of Qaim near the Syrian border.
Although violence and common crime continue to plague large sections of the country, Iraqi and U.S. officials said that the level of bloodshed Thursday suggested that security had improved at least modestly.
Terrorist attacks and killings of U.S. soldiers have declined since the Jan. 30 Iraqi national elections, officials say. One reason has been the increasing aggressiveness and effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, said Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, a deputy interior minister.
“The number of terrorist acts are declining,” Kamal said in an interview Thursday. “There are several factors. We have built up the security forces. The potential of the security forces has increased. And there is cooperation from the citizens.”
The U.S. military reported three U.S. soldiers killed in separate clashes, bringing the number of American military deaths in March to 33 – the lowest monthly death toll since 20 were killed in February 2004.
One soldier was killed in action Thursday near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad. No other details were released.
Another soldier died from wounds suffered Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul. The soldier was among six U.S. personnel injured when they tried to check a taxi, Lt. Col. Andre Lance said. The cab’s passengers opened fire, and the soldiers shot back, killing the assailants and causing the taxi to explode. Officials believe the vehicle was carrying explosives.
A third soldier was killed Wednesday when his patrol came under fire in Baghdad, the military said. The gunmen disappeared into a nearby crowd, but five suspects were later detained.
In January, 107 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, according to Pentagon statistics. The monthly total dropped to 58 in February.