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WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama yesterday backed away from an imminent military strike against Syria to seek the approval of the US Congress, in a decision that likely delays US action for at least 10 days. Obama, in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, said he had authorized the use of military force to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack Aug 21 that US officials say killed 1,429 people.

Military assets to carry out a strike are in place and ready to move on his order, he said. But in an acknowledgement of protests from US lawmakers and concerns from war-weary Americans, Obama added an important caveat: he wants Congress to approve. Congress is currently in recess and not scheduled to return to work until Sept 9. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move as one nation,” Obama said.

Obama’s decision was a big gamble that he can gain approval from Congress in order to launch a limited strike against Syria to safeguard an international ban on chemical weapons usage, guard US national security interests and protect regional allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. “I have long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Obama said.

His decision was also a significant shift away from what was perceived to be a strike fairly soon against Syrian targets. He had been prepared to act unilaterally after the British parliament refused to go along with American plans. Protracted and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left Americans reluctant to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Most Americans do not want the United States to intervene in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken this week showed only 20 percent believe the United States should take action, but that was up from 9 percent last week. A debate has raged for days in Washington among members of the US Congress over whether, or how quickly, Obama should take action.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell backed the move, which he said Obama had told him about. “The president’s role as commander in chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress,” said McConnell. Obama’s decision was announced after he met his national security team at the White House. Top aides were to brief senators later in the day and members of the House of Representatives are to receive a classified briefing from administration officials on Sunday.

The objective is to show solid proof that US intelligence officials say shows conclusively that the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad launched a large chemical weapons assault in Damascus suburbs that left among the dead 426 children. Obama has broad legal powers to take military action, and he insisted he felt he had the authority to launch a strike on his own. But he said he wanted Congress to have its say.

Meanwhile, UN experts investigating a poison gas attack in Syria left the country yesterday, paving the way for the United States to lead military strikes to punish President Bashar Al-Assad. US President Barack Obama said the United States, which has five cruise-missile equipped destroyers in the region, was planning “limited, narrow” military action to punish Assad for an attack that Washington said killed 1,429 people.

“We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale,” Obama said on Friday after Washington unveiled an intelligence assessment concluding Assad’s forces were to blame for the attack. The Aug 21 attack – the deadliest single incident of the Syrian civil war and the world’s worst use of chemical arms since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988 – has galvanized a reluctant Washington to use force after two and a half years on the sidelines.

The team of UN experts drove up to Beirut International Airport yesterday after crossing the land border into Lebanon by road earlier in the day. No Western intervention had been expected as long as they were still on the ground in Syria. The 20-member team had arrived in Damascus three days before the Aug 21 attack to investigate earlier accusations.

After days holed up in a hotel, they visited the sites several times, taking blood and tissue samples from victims in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus and from soldiers at a government hospital. Other UN agencies have also pulled staff from Syria, and countries have warned citizens away from neighboring Lebanon. “Most of the mid-level and non-essential staff left on Thursday. The heads of the various agencies have stayed behind, together with a skeleton local staff,” a UN source said from Damascus yesterday. – Agencies

CAIRO: Workers in blue overalls clamber over scaffolding around Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque, whitewashing its charred walls to restore a semblance of normalcy to the corner of Cairo where the struggle for Egypt reached a bloody climax this month. After a stunning reversal in which the army seized upon a tide of public discontent to overthrow freely elected President Mohamed Morsi, the powerful state apparatus appears to have all but neutralized the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs. Not only that.

Even as the army-backed government promises to shepherd Egypt towards democracy, its plans for a new political transition speak of a deep entrenchment of the old order that ran Egypt under veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak. In the space of a few weeks, security forces have arrested the Brotherhood’s leaders and killed its supporters by the hundreds in the streets.
Meanwhile, a committee appointed without debate has proposed constitutional amendments that would open the way for a political comeback by Mubarak-era officials. The prospect of financial meltdown has been staved off by billions of dollars in aid from Gulf states hostile to the Brotherhood, and Western censure has been muted, at best. In a highly symbolic victory for the old guard, the 85-year-old Mubarak was himself released from jail last week, albeit to await a retrial for ordering the killing of protesters in 2011.

Keen to show support for the army, Egyptians who may once have displayed pictures of Mubarak now celebrate Egypt’s new top soldier, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a hero to those who rallied against Brotherhood rule. One Sisi fan in Cairo is reportedly selling chocolate treats bearing the general’s image. And in language that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago, a state-run magazine this week described the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak as a “setback”.

With a nightly curfew enforced by the army, Cairo seems eerily calm. It is hard to believe Egypt has just suffered the bloodiest week in the Arab republic’s history. More than 900 people were killed, including some 100 police and soldiers, after security forces on Aug 14 destroyed the protest camps set up by Morsi’s backers after he was toppled.
The state had labeled the sit-ins a “threat to national security”. Accusing the Brotherhood of turning to violence – a charge the Brotherhood rejects as a pretext for the crackdown – the government has declared a “war on terrorism”. Fear has sucked the momentum from anti-government protests, and the arrests of Morsi and the other leaders have muted the Brotherhood’s voice. Essam El-Erian and Mohamed El-Beltagi, lawmakers even under Mubarak, have been reduced to issuing video messages from hiding.
Ahmed Mefreh of the international rights group Alkarama Foundation said more than 2,000 Morsi supporters had been arrested in Cairo alone. “The Brotherhood were losers in an impossible confrontation,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University and veteran political activist. The first draft of the new constitution seeks to restore the voting system that kept Mubarak in power for 30 years, something that has disappointed smaller parties that have struggled to establish themselves since the end of his one-man rule.

It would also lift a ban on former members of his government seeking office, and remove controversial Islamist-inspired language brought in last year. The government has begun to revive the political security apparatus that was shelved, but not dismantled, after the 2011 revolt. It has appointed ex-military figures to positions which, like the presidency, were once dominated by them. It seems unlikely the next president will be a rival to the power of the old establishment. The oath of allegiance sworn by conscripts no longer mentions loyalty to the head of state.

“What you will see is a very diminished role for the presidency – except of course if a military or security figure decides to run for that position,” said Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt at George Washington University. He also noted that in contrast to other countries, where the army might pledge loyalty to the constitution and laws, in Egypt, soldiers and officers will not swear allegiance to “any civilian official, law or procedure”.

Exhausted by 2-1/2 years of turmoil, many Egyptians now believe only the army can restore stability, and the military, which suffered a public backlash after taking power in 2011, has proved more adept this time at marshalling support. Even though he has indicated he doesn’t want the job, the 58-year-old Sisi looks an obvious candidate for president.

Speculation that he will run has intensified since a first photo emerged last week of the general in civilian clothes. “General Sisi is a popular hero par excellence, and if he decides to enter the elections he is the most popular at the moment,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist who came a close third in last year’s presidential election and backed Morsi’s removal. Sabahi believes Sisi will stick by his word not to run.
Nevertheless, state TV aired a show on Wednesday discussing the merits of a president from the military, in which the guest said there was nothing wrong with having a general at the helm. As yet, nobody has declared their candidacy – in contrast to the frenzied campaigning before the vote won by Morsi last year with the help of the Brotherhood’s unrivalled political machine. Asked about his own aspirations, Sabahi told Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper he had yet to decide: “Now is a moment that requires national ranks to unite in the face of terrorism.”
State media now describe the Muslim Brotherhood in terms akin to Al-Qaeda. The “war on terrorism” that the government has announced has already seen two of its top leaders put on trial on charges of inciting murder, by a court they say is political. Pro-Brotherhood protests, though still continuing, have shrunk dramatically, stifled in part by a state of emergency. “I do not go out in any protests where there is danger,” said one 26-year-old Brotherhood activist in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria who asked not to be named. “We’ve been demonstrating for two months and achieved nothing.”

Speaking by phone from hiding, Brotherhood politician Farid Ismail said opposition to the “putschist regime” was large and growing. “They want to make it seem that matters are proceeding through fait accompli politics,” he said. “They will not win. This is not victory.” But the group has few tools at its disposal to press the demand to which it still clings in public: a solution based on the constitution that was endorsed by a referendum last year.

“They now understand that they have lost and are under pressure from a wave of repression and arrests,” said a Western diplomat. “So they are in a second phase of saying they won’t return to any political process unless the repression stops and there are releases.” Though experts on the Brotherhood dismiss the idea it would be directly involved in violence, some have voiced fears that grievances could fuel a new wave of attacks by Islamist militants, reminiscent of the campaign of the 1990s and 1980s. – Reuters

TAIPEI: Police in Taiwan arrested 45 suspects in the island’s biggest ever crackdown on child pornography, officials said yesterday.

The clampdown last week targeted more than 50 locations as part of efforts to break up an international child pornography ring, in an operation codenamed “Angel Action”, the Criminal Investigation Bureau said.

All the suspects were released after initial interrogation but would face further questioning by prosecutors, Yang Yuan-ming, deputy commissioner of the bureau, told reporters. Anyone found guilty of distributing child pornography in Taiwan faces up to three years in jail and a fine of up to Tw$5 million ($165,000).

The Taiwan chapter of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography & Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) hailed the operation as “a big success”.

The crackdown came after ECPAT Taiwan last year tipped off US authorities about two pornographic websites set up in the United States. The websites have carried child pornography since 2007, with each attracting at least one million paid members, Lee Li-feng, secretary-general of ECPAT Taiwan, said.—AFP

BEIRUT: People in Damascus stocked up on supplies yesterday and some left homes close to potential targets as US officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days. United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.

But as UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar Al-Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.

Syria’s government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”. Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its Al- Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad’s foes – but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas.

Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the UN Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians – a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China. The United States and its allies say a UN veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.

Washington has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order. A senior US official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We’re talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the administration official said yesterday.

Western armies are expected to wait until the UN experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Secretary-General Ban said they need four days work. A second US official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future.

Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defenses and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah. With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high. World stock markets were hit by jitters over where the international escalation of Syria’s civil war might lead – however much Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission.

Neighboring Turkey, a NATO member, put its forces on alert. Israel mobilized some army reservists and bolstered its defenses against missile strikes from either Syria or Lebanon. Syria’s envoy to the United Nations said he had asked Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups. People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes.

In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighborhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it: “Every street, every neighborhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city centre. “Where do we hide?” At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.

Numerous factors, including weather and assessments of Syrian air defenses, may affect the timing of strikes. Analysts expect cruise missiles to be launched from US ships in the Mediterranean. Aircraft could also play a role, as may forces from other NATO powers, notably Britain and France. Obama is waiting for a US intelligence report, though its findings are in little doubt. US officials have already blamed Assad for the attacks on Aug 21.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament to debate the Syria crisis today. He should be able to secure cautious support, despite widespread misgivings among Western voters about new entanglements in the Muslim world. But British action is unlikely before lawmakers have had their say. The prospect of a Group of Twenty summit in St Petersburg today may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes.

Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states. “The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted yesterday. Western leaders in the G20 may prefer to have any strikes on Syria completed before the summit starts.

As diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States met at the United Nations, Moscow said Britain was “premature” in seeking a Security Council resolution for “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia and China might veto the move but added: “It’s time the UN Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.”

A senior Western diplomat said: “Of course there will be a Russian veto, but that’s part of the objective – to show that we tried everything and the Russians left us no choice. “The Americans want to go quickly.” China’s official newspaper also criticized yesterday what it saw as a push for illegal, Iraq-style “regime change” – despite US denials that Obama aims to overthrow Assad.

The US-led NATO alliance said evidence pointed to Assad’s forces having used gas, calling it a threat to global security. Ban’s special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said “international law is clear” in requiring Council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders say precedents, including NATO’s bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war, allow them to protect civilians.

There was tension between the United Nations and Western governments. One UN official said: “The UN is annoyed and feels the Western powers haven’t shared data or evidence with them, which is a problem. It kind of undercuts UN authority.” Rebel fighters and opposition activists showed the inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week’s gas release.

The experts also tested and interviewed survivors in hospital, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack. Amateur video showed the convoy of white UN jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011 and driven millions from their homes, many crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. It has heightened tensions between Assad’s sponsor Iran and Israel, which bombed Syria this year, and has fuelled sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon and in Iraq, where bombs killed more than 70 people yesterday alone. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that US action would be “a disaster for the region”.- Reuters

Were chemical weapons deployed in suburban Damascus a week ago, leading to the deaths of at least 355 civilians? And, if so, who used them, the regime of embattled leader Bashar al-Assad? Or one of the several rebel groups trying to topple him, perhaps to try to draw the West into the Syrian conflict?

The U.S. and most Western countries, notably Britain and France, are pointing the finger at Assad for the attack, while the Syrian government and its main international ally, Russia, blame the rebels.

At this point, except for those responsible, no one knows for sure who was behind the attack, or even what kind of chemicals might have been used.

UN weapons inspectors are now on the scene trying to determine whether chemical weapons were, indeed, used.

The international group Doctors without Borders, the source for the casualty figures, says, it "can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack."

Its information comes from three hospitals in Damascus that "received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms" on the morning of Aug. 21. MSF staff were not at the facilities themselves.

If that attack a week ago can be confirmed as a deliberate use of chemical weapons on civilians, it would go down in history as only the second such large-scale incident against civilians in modern times. (Though there have been allegations of at least five other uses of chemical weapons that have affected civilians in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, the first in March of this year.)


The first incident, a quarter century ago, is now nearly forgotten, but in both its similarities and its stark contrasts with the current situation, it helps with understanding the dilemma the world faces today.

The date was March 16, 1988, in a Kurdish town in Iraq, 14 kilometres from the border with Iran. The bloody Iran-Iraq war was in its eighth and final year.

One day earlier, the townspeople had liberated Halabja. Iraqi forces were abandoning the area and Iranian troops, guided by allied Kurdish guerillas, had briefly entered the town.

On March 16, according to eye-witness accounts and Iraqi pilots years later, poison gas was dropped from aircraft, killing several thousand civilians in the town, with the precise death toll unknown.

1988 poison gas attack killed thousands

Iran and Kurdish leaders, especially Jalal Talabani, now Iraq's president, alerted the outside world. Iran flew in journalists, whose images of streets littered with corpses were shown on newscasts. However, no independent investigators visited the area.


Claims by Iran and the Iraqi Kurds that Saddam Hussein's forces had carried out the gas attack were initially accepted. But on March 23, U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that "Iran may also have used chemical artillery shells in this fighting."

Other unnamed U.S. government officials, speaking to journalists off the record, also suggested that Iran, America's primary Middle East antagonist at the time, was responsible, at least in part.


The book is the definitive account of what happened, and Hiltermann concluded it was Iraq, and only Iraq, that used chemical weapons against the people of Halabja.

It would take two years for the dominant, U.S. government view to shift from publicly blaming Iran to blaming Iraq, and that was only after Saddam hinted at undertaking a chemical gas attack against Israel. His ill-conceived invasion of Kuwait a few months later sealed the deal.

U.S. blocks response to attack

In 1988, the U.S. was allied with Iraq, and was providing order of battle data about Iranian forces to the Iraqis, while turning a blind eye to what it knew were chemical attacks against Iranian troops, a serious and flagrant violation of international law.

"It was the only slightly better of two bad choices: stop helping the Iraqis and the Iranians would likely win the war, or continue to work with a country now using nerve agents on the battlefield," writes Rick Francona this week on his blog. Francona was U.S. military liaison officer to the Iraqi forces in 1988.

Francona claims that the U.S. didn't yet know that Saddam had ordered the chemical attack on Halabja, but he is now adamant that it was Iraq that perpetrated that atrocity.


However, there are still many people who believe the old U.S. argument, and the debate continues in some circles about what exactly killed, sickened and maimed the townspeople of Halabja.

Fast forward 25 years, and the conflicting accounts from the Russians, Americans, Europeans as well as the Assad regime and the rebels, not to mention the lack of evidence to date, suggests it may take time to find out what really happened in Syria.

Halabja 'similar' to attack in Damascus

Stephen Pelletiere was with the CIA until 1988, before going on to teach at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, retiring in 2000 as a senior professor. He has written six books on Iraq and is working on another one about Halabja.

Pelletiere has been and continues to be one of the leading voices for the narrative that blames Iran for that chemical gas attack.

But he was also a high-level skeptic about the rationale for going to war with Iraq in 2003, and sees something similar taking place with regard to Syria today.

"If you look at the events surrounding not just Halabja but the whole fuss in the U.S. over going to war with Iraq [in 2003], and then you look at what's going on now in Syria, it follows an almost exact same pattern."

As he told CBC News, in 1988 there was every reason in the world why the Iraqi commander might have used gas but in the case of Syria, there's no reason at all."

For Pelletiere, it's illogical for Assad to resort to poison gas when UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus and when his forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the war. "The logic is all on the side of a provocation," he argues.

Science needed

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't know what Assad's logic might be in a situation like this, with rebel forces almost literally on his Damascus doorstep. But there is the possibility, at least, that chemistry might help sort the situation out.

Mathew Meselson, who heads the Harvard University program on chemical and biological weapons, looks at the science of these situations and notes we haven't seen any yet in the case of Syria.

"It's essential that any head of state or government official who's making momentous decisions on the basis of chemical analysis must talk not just with other political figures or subordinates, but with individuals who are deeply knowledgeable about the science itself," he told Bloomberg News.


He cited the case of U.S. allegations against the former Soviet Union in 1981, that it had supplied chemical agents to communist forces in Vietnam and Laos that turned out to be honeybee droppings.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems convinced that chemical weapons were used last week, was blunt yesterday: "All peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again."

It's a far cry from 1988 when people like Hiltermann were critical of the world for doing nothing about Halabja and of the UN for bowing to American pressure to not hold Iraq responsible for being the first country to use poison gas against civilians, despite the realized threat of proliferation.

JAPAN: Residents in a southern Japanese city were busy washing ash off the streets Monday after a nearby volcano spewed a record-high smoke plume into the sky.

Ash wafted as high as five kilometres above the Sakurajima volcano in the southern city of Kagoshima on Sunday afternoon, forming its highest plume since the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) started keeping records in 2006. Lava flowed about one kilometre from the fissure, and several huge volcanic rocks rolled down the mountainside.

Though the eruption was more massive than usual, residents of the city of about 600,000 are used to hearing from their 1,117-metre (3,664-foot) neighbour. Kagoshima officials said in a statement that this was Sakurajima's 500th eruption this year alone.

Residents wore masks and raincoats and used umbrellas to shield themselves from the falling ash. Drivers turned on their headlights in the dull evening gloom, and railway service in the city was halted temporarily so ash could be removed from the tracks.

Officials said no injuries or damage was reported from the volcano, which is about 10 kilometres east of the city.

By Monday morning, the air was clearer as masked residents sprinkled water and swept up the ash. The city was mobilizing garbage trucks and water sprinklers to clean up.

"The smoke was a bit dramatic, but we are kind of used to it," said a city official who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

JMA says there are no signs of a larger eruption but similar activity may continue. It was maintaining an earlier warning that people not venture near the volcano itself.

Japan is on the "Ring of Fire," the seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean, and has frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.

IRAQ: A wave of bomb attacks has hit Iraq as people celebrated the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan, with more than 60 reported dead.

Eleven bombs targeted both Shia and Sunni areas of the capital, Baghdad, hitting cafes, markets and restaurants in at least nine different districts.

A bomb also killed at least 10 people in Tuz Khurmato, north of the capital.

This Ramadan in Iraq is thought to have been one of the deadliest in years, with more than 670 people killed.

Most of the violence in the past six months has involved Sunni Islamist militant groups targeting Shia Muslim districts.

More than 4,000 people have died in such attacks this year. A further 9,865 have been injured, with Baghdad province the worst hit.

Maliki vow

More than 170 people were reported injured in the latest wave of violence.

The capital's deadliest car bomb attack on Saturday struck in the evening near an outdoor market in the south-eastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, police said, killing seven people and injuring 20.


Correspondents say the areas struck in the capital were both Shia and Sunni districts.

Among the areas struck were Amil, Abu Dashir, Khazimiya, Baiyaa, Shaab, Husseiniya and Dora.

Saif Mousa, the owner of a shoe store in the mainly Shia New Baghdad, said he was sitting in his shop when he heard an explosion outside.

He told the Associated Press news agency: "My shop's windows were smashed and smoke filled the whole area. I went outside of the shop and I could hardly see because of the smoke. We had a terrible day that was supposed to be nice."

At least another 10 people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack in Tuz Khurmato, 170km (105 miles) north of Baghdad.

Other attacks were reported in the Shia holy city of Karbala, 80km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, and Nasiriya, 375km (230 miles) south of the capital.

Another went off near a Shia mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Last week Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to continue operations against militants, saying: "We will not leave our children to these murderers and those standing behind them and supporting both inside and outside."

Many Sunnis accuse Mr Maliki's Shia-led government of marginalising them.

The tensions this year were fuelled in April when Iraqi security forces broke up an anti-government Sunni protest in the city of Hawija, killing and wounding dozens of protesters.

Then last month, hundreds of inmates escaped after gunmen stormed two jails near Baghdad - Abu Ghraib to the west of the capital and Taji to the north.

The spike in violence in Iraq has raised fears of a return to the levels of sectarian killing seen following the US invasion 10 years ago, and has led commentators to discuss once again the prospect of partition along community lines.

The Iraqi government has also faced widespread criticism over corruption and the provision of basic services.

The conflict in neighbouring Syria, itself increasingly taking the form of a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, is further straining community relations in Iraq.


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