BAGHDAD, Iraq – At least 20 people were killed Tuesday in a string of bombings in the center of Baghdad, as more American soldiers patrolled the streets of the capital in a make-or-break bid to quell sectarian violence.
Nearly 60 people were wounded in the blasts, police said. The explosions began when three bombs went off simultaneously near the Interior Ministry in central Baghdad, killing 10 people and wounding eight, police Lt. Bilal Ali Majid said.
Two more bombs ripped through the main Shurja market, also in central Baghdad, killing 10 more civilians and wounding 50, police Lt. Mohammed Kheyoun said.
At least 13 other people were killed or found dead Tuesday, most in the Baghdad area, where tension between Sunnis and Shiites runs the highest.
The violence underscores the security crisis facing Baghdad, which prompted American commanders to send more U.S. soldiers to the capital in a renewed bid to curb sectarian killings and kidnappings.
U.S. officials said the latest phase of the security operation was launched Monday “to reduce the level of murders, kidnappings, assassinations, terrorism and sectarian violence in the city and to reinforce the Iraqi government’s control of Baghdad.”
A U.S. statement said about 6,000 additional Iraqi troops were being sent to the Baghdad area, along with 3,500 U.S. soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and 2,000 troops from the U.S. 1st Armored Division, which has served as the theater reserve force since November.
“Iraqi and Multinational Division-Baghdad soldiers will not fail the Iraqi people,” said Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in the capital.
American officials have released few details of the new campaign, citing security. However, more heavily armed U.S. soldiers were seen Tuesday on the streets of Ghazaliyah, one of the neighborhoods targeted in the first stage of the stabilization effort.
Troops were seen patrolling both in vehicles and on foot, hoping to assure residents of the majority Sunni neighborhood they will be protected from criminals and sectarian death squads.
“The general priorities are to bring stability to the key neighborhoods where there is sectarian fighting,” the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., told reporters in Tikrit. “You’ll see us starting there and then gradually expanding across the rest of the city.”
Much of the violence has been blamed on sectarian militias that have stepped up a campaign of tit-for-tat killings since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Many militias are linked to political parties that are part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s national unity government, and they are reluctant to disband their armed wings unless others do the same.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said there was talk under way among Sunni and Shiite groups to reach agreements and sign pledges to end sectarian fighting.
Both Khalilzad and Casey were in Tikrit for ceremonies marking the formal transfer of security responsibility from the 101st Airborne Division to the Iraqi army across a wide area of northern Iraq.
U.S. officials emphasized the transfer of authority was on schedule despite the security crisis in Baghdad.