BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two bomb blasts killed 19 people in Baghdad on Monday, police and Iraqi security forces said, despite increased security across the capital for a historic visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iraqi officials said the attacks were not related to the state visit by Ahmadinejad, the first by a regional leader since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Iran’s old foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In the worst incident, 15 people were killed and 20 wounded when an Iraqi army patrol was hit by a suicide car bomb in central Baghdad’s Bab al-Muadham area, said Major-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for security operations in Baghdad.
The dead included Iraqi soldiers, U.S.-backed neighbourhood security police and civilians, the U.S. military said.
Another four people, including two soldiers, were killed and 10 wounded when a suicide bomber rammed a minibus into an Iraqi army checkpoint in Ghadeer in eastern Baghdad.
The U.S. military said Iraqi soldiers had prevented the bomber from reaching the probable intended target, a nearby Iraqi army headquarters, likely saving many lives.
“A minibus laden with explosives was stopped by the heroic actions of several Iraqi army soldiers,” said U.S. military spokesman Colonel Allen Batschelet.
The bombings, which the U.S. military blamed on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, occurred despite a major security operation across Baghdad for Ahmadinejad’s visit, which ended on Monday.
“These are regular attacks. It has nothing to do with the visit of the Iranian president,” Moussawi said.
“If the suicide bomber wants to commit suicide, how can we prevent them?” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have hailed improved security in the capital and across Iraq in recent months, with attacks down by 60 percent since last June, when an extra 30,000 U.S. troops became fully deployed.
However, al Qaeda is still considered a major threat to security and continues to carry out regular attacks.
Iraqi government figures last week showed that violent civilian deaths had risen by 36 percent in February on the previous month after a series of large-scale suicide bombings blamed on the militants.
Ahmadinejad wrapped up his two-day visit, the first by an Iranian president since Saddam launched an eight-year war on Iran in 1980 in which 1 million people died, by saying the United States had brought only destruction and division.
However, U.S. officials countered that Iran’s influence was behind instability in Iraq.
“We have made it clear there is a need for Iran and Iraq to have a stable relationship. To have that, Iran needs to pursue a different strategy and not focus on rhetoric,” said U.S. embassy spokesman Philip Reeker.
Other incidents underscored the ongoing violence facing U.S. forces and Iraqi authorities across the country.
The U.S. military said the bodies of 14 people, believed to be either Iraqi police or members of a U.S.-backed neighbourhood security unit, had been found in a mass grave near Samarra, north of Baghdad. They had been tied up and shot in the head.
In Basra, the British military said it was investigating whether a woman had been killed and three children wounded by a defective artillery shell it had fired after its base near the southern city’s airport came under rocket attack.
Iraqi police said a child had also been killed in the incident, which comes three days after a British airman was killed in a rocket attack on the base.
Also in Basra, gunmen killed police Colonel Qassim Abid Filaih and three of his bodyguards in a drive-by shooting.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed in
Baghdad; Editing by Charles Dick)