- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — A car bomb killed at least eight persons in a northern Kurdish area yesterday, but Baghdad remained largely calm with a driving ban still in effect and thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims headed home.

U.S. military officials praised the performance of Iraqi security forces during the pilgrimage Thursday, in which hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites march to a northern Baghdad shrine, undisturbed by any major violence.

The driving ban and curfew imposed on Baghdad for three days will be lifted at dawn today.

“They have done an absolutely amazing job,” said Col. John Castles, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82 Airborne Division, speaking of Iraqi forces who protected the march.

“We have been in solely a support role, in the background only. And this is something that the Iraqis planned themselves, coordinated and then executed, over a span of three or four days,” Col. Castles said.

Col. Castles, whose soldiers are responsible for Sadr City, the Shi’ite slum where many pilgrims began their walk, also said radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is thought to have returned to Iran.

A spokesman at Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, called the U.S. assertion a “baseless rumor.”

“The Americans are just trying to find out where al-Sadr is,” the spokesman said.

Sheik al-Sadr, the head of a major Shi’ite militia called the Mahdi Army, had taken refuge in Iran earlier this year as the United States began sending more troops into Iraq. He appeared again on May 25 in public in Iraq, but was last heard from inside the country on June 28.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who traveled to Turkey and Iran this week, stayed an extra day in Tehran yesterday for laser surgery to correct a distance vision problem in his right eye, according to a government official traveling with the Iraqi leader. He said the procedure was successful.

Separately, two U.S. soldiers were wounded when a U.S. helicopter went down south of the capital, the military said. Their injuries were not life-threatening.

The HH-60 helicopter was en route to support a planned mission when it made the forced landing in Youssifiyah, the U.S. military said.

An Iraqi army officer said the helicopter went down after hitting an electricity pole during a raid targeting an insurgent. The U.S. military did not confirm that.

It was the second helicopter to crash in less than two weeks. On July 31, an AH-64 Apache helicopter went down after coming under fire in eastern Baghdad but the two crew members were safely evacuated.

The car bomb, hidden in a parked car, hit a market in a Kurdish area of Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich city 180 miles north of Baghdad.

Tensions have increased in Kirkuk as Kurds seek to include the city in their autonomous zone in northern Iraq — a move opposed by Arabs and Turkmen. Kirkuk has also seen an increase in violence by militants thought to have fled the recent U.S. crackdown in Baghdad.

In all, at least 55 persons were killed or found dead nationwide.

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