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Iraq hit by bombs, political upheaval

BAGHDAD – A fresh spate of bombings killed at least 44 people in Shiite-dominant areas across Baghdad on Sunday, in one of the city’s deadliest days since a U.S.-led security push to stem violence in the capital began two months ago. The deaths came during a day of political turmoil:

Two officials close to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said his followers would quit their six Cabinet posts today – a move that could leave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s already- weak administration without enough support to stay in power.

And, in a rare gesture of dissent from America’s partners in Baghdad, dozens of Iraqi policemen demonstrated in front of their station, accusing U.S. troops of treating them like “animals” and “slaves.”

The gravest of the attacks in Baghdad occurred Sunday morning, when twin car bombs exploded in a bustling marketplace in the Shurta Raba neighborhood, killing 18 people.

A few hours later, eight people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated a belt of explosives inside a minibus, and another car bomb killed five. Later, two car bombs several hours apart ripped through the normally calm neighborhood of Karrada in central Baghdad, killing 13, police said.

The string of bombings punctuated a week in which Baghdad residents were deeply shaken by two bombings that seemed intended to show off insurgents’ ability to strike anywhere. On Thursday, a truck bomb collapsed a bridge over the Tigris river that linked Baghdad’s Shiite east to its Sunni west. Later that day, a suicide bombing killed one Sunni lawmaker and wounded several others as they lunched in the parliament cafeteria in the Green Zone – a fortress-like area most considered invulnerable to such attacks.

U.S. military officials have credited the 2-month-old security plan – which has involved deploying additional troops to Baghdad and other parts of the country – for a drop in execution-style killings. But they have acknowledged that insurgent bombings have stayed steady, and violence has increased in areas outside the capital as militants have fled the crackdown.

“We’ve been saying all along that the enemy is going to continue to fight,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

“It just reaffirms the need for a security plan.”

Also Sunday, U.S. and British forces announced the deaths of five soldiers in Iraq.

North of Baghdad, two British helicopters crashed in what appeared to be an accidental midair collision, British Defense Secretary Des Browne and the U.S. military said in statements.

Two British soldiers were killed and four were injured, Browne said.

One U.S. soldier was killed Sunday in a firefight in southern Baghdad, the military said. On Saturday, one soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad and a Marine was killed in Anbar province.

The violence isn’t the only threat to the government. A pullout by the al-Sadr faction, which provided the crucial votes that put al-Maliki in office, could collapse his already shaky regime.

Al-Sadr’s six followers on the 37-seat Cabinet would officially withdraw from the government today, said Saleh al-Aujaili and Hassan al-Rubaie, members of the Sadrist bloc in parliament. They said al-Sadr’s 30 legislators would stay in parliament.

The officials said al-Sadr ordered the Cabinet ministers to quit in protest over the arrests of leaders in his Shiite militia during the Baghdad crackdown and for the prime minister’s failure to back setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

Earlier in the day, dozens of Iraqi police officers chanted “No, no to America! Get out occupiers!” during a protest at the Rashad station in Baghdad’s eastern neighborhood of Mashtal. U.S. troops in two Humvees and a Bradley fighting vehicle watched from a distance.

Officers complained that American troops do not treat them with respect, but it wasn’t clear whether any specific incident set off the demonstration.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., was in Baghdad wrapping up a visit that included a day in strife-torn al-Anbar province and discussions with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Hagel, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2008, has been critical of President Bush’s Iraq policy and has said the $100 billion in emergency funding requested by the administration for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be conditional.

“We can’t continually stay in Iraq the way we have been in Iraq,” Hagel said.

“It was never intended to be an open-ended commitment,” he said.