BAGHDAD, Dec. 4 -- Insurgents plowed a car bomb into a bus carrying Kurdish militiamen in northern Iraq on Saturday, while Sunni and Shiite militias fought a pitched battle south of Baghdad. The day's violence, which killed dozens, underscored the rise in ethnic and sectarian tensions as Iraq heads toward nationwide elections in January.
Across the country, other insurgent attacks claimed the lives of U.S. soldiers and allied Iraqi forces. Two American GIs were killed in roadside bombings in the capital and near the central Iraqi city of Baqubah, and two U.S. soldiers were killed and four wounded when their patrol came under attack in Mosul.
A U.S. Army soldier guards Iraqi men awaiting questioning in Mosul after an insurgent attack. Fighting in the northern city has surged since November.
(Jim Macmillan -- AP)
Two other U.S. soldiers died in a suicide bombing of their post near the Jordanian border Friday, the military said.
In Baghdad, insurgents detonated two car bombs simultaneously at an Iraqi police station near the fortified headquarters of the U.S. Embassy and the interim Iraqi government, killing at least three Iraqi policemen and wounding dozens of others.
The attacks illustrated both the geographical reach and diverse goals of the country's tenacious insurgency. For more than a year, guerrillas have targeted U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces, while other attacks have seemed aimed at exacerbating ethnic and sectarian strife in order to undermine the U.S.-led occupation.
Both the U.S. military and the insurgents see the upcoming elections, scheduled for Jan. 30, as a turning point. The Americans hope the elections will create a government with a measure of legitimacy and hasten a withdrawal of U.S. troops, whose numbers are set to grow from 138,000 to 150,000 by mid-January. The guerrillas aim to disrupt the vote, whose success would probably be seen as a victory for the U.S. project in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Bahrain, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, acknowledged that Iraqi security forces were not up to the task of providing security during the elections.
"It had been our hope that we would be able to have a combination of increases that mainly were Iraqi troops' increases," Abizaid said. "And while the Iraqi troops are larger in number than they used to be, those forces have to be seasoned more, trained more. So, it's necessary to bring more American forces."
In one of the bloodiest attacks Saturday, a driver smashed a car packed with explosives into a Toyota minibus carrying Kurdish militiamen into Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and home to a mixed Kurdish and Sunni Arab population. Hospital officials said at least 18 Kurds on the bus were killed in the 4 p.m. bombing.
Since November, fighting has surged in Mosul, a picturesque city along the Tigris River. Last month, insurgents overran police stations and attacked Kurdish party offices. Almost all of Mosul's 5,000-man police force fled, and Kurds have accounted for a substantial portion of the federal troops brought in to restore order.
In fighting Friday, insurgents again attacked four police stations before they were driven off, the military said. Elsewhere in the city, a force of perhaps 70 guerrillas ambushed a U.S. military patrol with roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a counterattack, the military said, killing more than two dozen fighters.
Fighting also erupted Saturday in Latifiyah, a town 25 miles south of Baghdad where insurgent activity has increased. The clashes came in two rounds, one of which appeared to be the most openly sectarian fighting since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The first clash pitted a newly formed Shiite Muslim militia against a group of Sunni Muslim extremists, who had been accused of killing Shiites on the road to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Each group brought rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles to the fight, which began after 9 a.m. When the smoke cleared, the Sunni group claimed to have killed 16 members of the attacking Brigades of Fury, the Shiite militia formed in the southern city of Basra last month to avenge the deaths of Shiites on the pilgrimage route, which runs through Latifiyah.