- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

BAGHDAD | A suicide bomber struck Sunni and Shi’ite tribal leaders and high-ranking security officials touring a market after a reconciliation meeting west of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing 33 people. The attack raised concerns about a spike in violence as the U.S. military begins to drawn down its forces.

The bombing was the third large-scale attack in less than a week. It was the latest in a wave that has marred an announcement Sunday by the U.S. military that 12,000 American troops and 4,000 Britons will be withdrawn from the country by September - the first step in fulfilling President Obama’s pledge to end America’s part in the war by the end of 2011.

U.S. troops are to leave the cities by the end of June, but the attacks raise questions about whether Iraqi security forces will be able to cope with persistent violence.

Tuesday’s bomber detonated an explosives belt as the tribal leaders were walking through the market in the town of Abu Ghraib, accompanied by security officials and journalists, according to the Iraqi military.

Two Iraqi television journalists from the privately owned Baghdadiya station were among those killed in the attack. Four staffers of the state television network were also wounded, one seriously, their station said.

Shakir Fizaa, the mayor of Abu Ghraib, blamed al Qaeda in Iraq, saying the militants “seized on today’s big meeting to carry out the attack.”

Most of the tribal leaders had just left his office along with security officials, including a deputy interior minister, after the meeting and were chatting with people in the market when the blast occurred, he said.

Iraqi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information, said 33 people were killed and 46 wounded in the attack. But the Iraqi military spokesman’s office put the toll slightly lower, at 28 people killed and 28 wounded. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings.

The reconciliation meeting the Sunni and Shi’ite sheiks were holding Tuesday before they were attacked was one of many the Iraqi government has been encouraging to heal the rifts between the Muslim sects after years of sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, last week went so far as to call on Iraqis to reconcile with former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime who have been shunned by the Shi’ite government that rose to power after the U.S. invasion.

Last Sunday, a suicide attacker killed 30 people near the police academy in east Baghdad. A car bomb also tore through a livestock market in the Shi’ite city of Hillah on March 5, killing 13 people.

Abu Ghraib is a mainly Sunni district that also is the site of the prison where U.S. soldiers were photographed abusing inmates, igniting a scandal that was one of the biggest setbacks to American efforts to win the peace in Iraq.

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