- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car at the gates of an Italian military base Monday in one of two attacks on the relatively secure western city of Herat, killing at least five Afghans in a major commercial center slated to be handed over by NATO to Afghan control in July.

The bombings, claimed by the Taliban, were the second major attack in three days as insurgents expand their targets outside the southern and eastern theaters that were the focus of American offensives last winter.

In other violence around Afghanistan, four NATO service members were killed Monday.

Taliban attacks inside Herat are rare, though there are violence-prone districts on the city’s outskirts. But insurgents have been increasing attacks around the country since the group announced its spring offensive in late April and reaching into areas that had been fairly quiet until now.

The expansion of Taliban assaults into new areas suggests that the insurgents are making a statement about their reach just as NATO is trying to shift some more secure areas of the country to Afghan control. The international alliance aims to transition cities or provinces piecemeal to reach the goal of total Afghan control by 2014.

Herat, western Afghanistan’s largest city, is one of seven areas scheduled to be handed over to Afghan control in July as the first step of the transition of nationwide security responsibility to Afghan troops.

Support for the Afghan war has been waning in allied countries after nearly 10 years of fighting, and many NATO nations are sketching drawdown plans. Some have argued that the death of Osama bin Laden means that there is less need to spend money and lives in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week that plans for handing over control of the seven areas to Afghan soldiers in July remain on course, despite the new attacks. But attacks such as those Monday could undermine international support even for the existing plan of gradual withdrawal.

The first explosion hit at the gates of the Italian base in a residential area of the city. Police said more than 30 were wounded. Five Italian soldiers were among the wounded, one of them seriously, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. A second explosion ripped through a bus stop at a busy downtown intersection, and a third explosion was heard near the Italian base, officials said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said both attackers were aiming for the Italian base but the second explosion occurred when the bomber couldn’t get to his target.

“That blast may have had some civilian casualties,” Mr. Ahmadi said. “Our aim was not to kill civilians.”

The bombings followed closely behind another major attack on Saturday, when an explosion struck inside the governor’s compound in northeastern Takhar province. It killed two top Afghan police commanders and wounded the German general who commands NATO forces in the north. Two Germans and two other Afghans died.

Among those killed was Gen. Daud Daud, a leader in the Northern Alliance group of minorities who fought against the Taliban. Gen. Daud was a former deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and a former bodyguard of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al Qaeda suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that provoked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Leaders in the Northern Alliance say they want peace, but they are afraid of any deal that would give power to the Taliban, their former foes, made up mostly of ethnic Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. Also, the Afghan government is concerned that Gen. Daud’s death — one in a spate of killings targeting Northern Alliance figures — could further erode ethnic Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek group support for its efforts to make peace with the Taliban.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai rushed back from a trip abroad after learning of Gen. Daud’s death, while his former presidential challenger issued a statement saying that it was a loss for those pushing for peace in the country.

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