- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

BAGHDAD — Two near-simultaneous bombings targeted a crowded downtown Baghdad coffee shop and a nearby restaurant yesterday, killing more than a dozen people. The attacks came as a foreign assessment team reported evidence of fraud in the Dec. 15 elections but did not endorse calls for a rerun.

The bombings occurred despite government moves to heighten security as an election commission prepares to announce the vote results. The announcement, which could be made today, sets the stage for talks on a new national unity government U.S. officials hope will help calm the insurgency and enable the United States to begin withdrawing its 140,000 troops.

The first explosion occurred at a coffee shop on bustling Saadoun Street in the heart of Baghdad. Seconds later, a blast caused by a planted bomb rocked a restaurant down the street.

Some officials said the first blast was triggered by a suicide attacker wearing an explosives-laden vest, while others insisted both were caused by bombs detonated by remote control.

Officials put the death toll between 13 and 25. Police Lt. Osama Mohammed blamed the confusion on miscounting of bodies because the blast sites were so close.

The explosions shattered shop windows and destroyed cars. Wooden tables and chairs were strewn over the bloodstained pavement as rescue workers treated the wounded.

The mother of abducted American Jill Carroll, meanwhile, appealed for her daughter’s release. The captors have threatened to kill the journalist unless U.S. authorities release all Iraqi women in military custody by tonight. Muslim leaders in Iraq and elsewhere joined in the appeal.

Mary Beth Carroll, speaking on CNN yesterday, said video images of her daughter in captivity, aired by Al Jazeera television, gave her hope that her daughter was alive but also have “shaken us about her fate.”

“I, her father and her sister are appealing directly to her captors to release this young woman who has worked so hard to show the sufferings of Iraqis to the world,” Mrs. Carroll said.

The U.S. military has said eight Iraqi women are in military detention. An Iraqi government commission reviewing detainee cases recommended to U.S. authorities Monday that six of them be released.

Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim Ali said the six women would be freed next week but not as “part of any swap with any kidnappers.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, however, said no prisoner release was imminent.

The blasts yesterday were part of a surge in violence in Iraq this week. U.S. and Iraqi officials have predicted a spike in attacks when the election figures are released.

Preliminary reports indicate that an alliance of Shi’ite Muslim religious parties won the most seats in the 275-member parliament but not enough to govern without coalition partners, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Shi’ite alliance dominates the current government.

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