BAGHDAD, Iraq - Car bombs ripped through Iraq, killing at least 47 people and wounding more than 140 yesterday, increasing pressure on the new Iraqi government to stop a wave of insurgent violence.
Fire and smoke rose into the sky around lunchtime near a falafel restaurant in Baghdad's Talibya neighborhood. The 10 dead and 107 wounded Iraqis, including students and scrap collectors, were scattered amid 22 burned cars as family members called through the smoke for loved ones.
U.S.-led forces said at least 20 people were killed by two car bombs near a Shiite community center about 50 miles outside Mosul in Tal Afar, news agencies reported. The attacks appeared to be further evidence of growing sectarian tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Yesterday evening, another car bomb, near a Shiite mosque in Mahmudiya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, killed five people and injured 19, including 11 children.
In other violence, Maj. Gen. Wael al-Rubaie, a top Iraqi counterinsurgency official in the Ministry of National Security was assassinated, along with his driver, as he set out for work in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad, the ministry said. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq organization claimed responsibility for this latest in a string of attacks targeting senior officials in the new government.
The attacks occurred as U.S. and Iraqi troops said they had arrested about 300 suspected militants in several Baghdad neighborhoods, including Abu Ghraib and other havens of guerrilla activities. The sweeps, dubbed Operation Squeeze Play, turned up caches of anti-aircraft rounds, grenades, Kalashnikov assault rifles and $6 million in cash, according to the U.S. military. The arrests could not be independently verified.
"It was the largest combined operation of its type in Baghdad," said Sgt. 1st Class David Abrams of the 3rd Infantry Division.
A U.S. military official said 20,000 U.S. troops backed 15,000 Iraqi soldiers and 13 special police battalions in the raids, which began Sunday and are expected to last a few more days.
Since the new Iraqi government was sworn in less than a month ago, car bombs, insurgent ambushes and sectarian strife have battered the country, killing more than 500 people. U.S. forces have been attempting to give the Iraqi military a greater role in fighting the insurgency.
But many Iraqis say they doubt that the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is capable of defeating militant groups that include former Sunni Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein and fighters loyal to al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian extremist with links to al-Qaida.
Yesterday's bombings struck after a weekend during which it appeared that Sunni and Shiite leaders were trying to reduce bloodshed. Sunni groups gathered in Baghdad to forge a unified strategy to find a political compromise with Shiites. Radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sent a delegation during the weekend to ask Sunni leaders to help end sectarian hostilities.
A senior American military official told reporters in a background briefing last week that U.S. and Iraqi forces were concentrating on breaking insurgent activity in several Baghdad neighborhoods dominated by Sunni Arabs. The official said intelligence information suggested that extremists were manufacturing car bombs in shops and warehouses in neighborhoods that remained sympathetic to overthrowing the new government.
Car and suicide bombs also rocked other parts of Iraq yesterday. Eight people were killed in Tuz Khurmatu, a city about 110 miles north of Baghdad, when a car bomb exploded near a convoy carrying a Kurdish official. The official survived.
In Samarra, two car bombs detonated outside a fence near a U.S. military base. About the same time, a blast from a suicide bomber shook a police station and damaged several houses, killing two people and wounding 21. U.S. and Iraqi forces responded by sealing three entrances to the city.
In the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military announced that three American soldiers had been killed in attacks Sunday. Two other soldiers died during the weekend - one killed by a car bomb in Tikrit and the other in a vehicle accident in Kirkuk.
The car bomb at the Baghdad restaurant yesterday struck in a poor Shiite neighborhood of tea and nut shops and people collecting scrap metal. The restaurant, known as Habaybna, sold cheap sandwiches and falafel. Until recently, it was frequented by police patrols.
"But we felt that it was too risky these days, because the police are targets," said Ali al-Saadi, one of the restaurant's owners. "We asked them not to come, so disaster wouldn't happen. But it happened today."
The blast left a crater 3 feet deep and 6 feet wide. Security forces closed the block and fired into the air to intimidate anyone driving down the road.
Hashim Abood Kadim, a transportation worker, was delivering pay to employees and went into the restaurant for lunch. He said he left the money in his car, where it was turned to ash by the blast and fire. No one would believe his story, he said.
"We were preparing for tomorrow's exam," said Ahmed Sadiq, a college student living in a nearby apartment. "The explosion rocked the building. Glass smashed. Doors broke. Dust and smoke everywhere. Injured people. Cars burning."
An old woman, clad in black, wandered through the haze, repeating the question: "Did my son die?"
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.