Two attacks on vehicles carrying Iraqi women to their jobs Thursday morning claimed the lives of six women and one man and severely wounded more than a dozen people, witnesses and government officials said.
Four of the women were killed when gunmen opened fire from a minivan that had pulled alongside a bus filled mostly with female employees of Iraqi Airways and the Civil Aviation Ministry on their way to work at Baghdad International Airport. One woman, a member of an airport cleaning crew, died at the scene and three others died after being rushed to a nearby hospital, according to an Iraqi Airways employee who was riding in a second bus.
"Why are they shooting at us?" said the witness, who asked that her name not be used for security reasons. "We are working for an Iraqi government company, not an American company."
In the second attack, two female secretaries and a male colleague driving to their jobs in the office of the interim president, Ghazi Yawar, were killed when gunmen fired at their car, witnesses said. Yawar's press secretary, who was also in the vehicle, was seriously wounded, according to the Interior Ministry, which confirmed witness accounts of the attack.
It was not clear whether the assailants in either attack had targeted women. For months, insurgent strikes have most often been aimed at targets associated with Iraq's predominantly male security forces. Women have also been targeted, particularly those who work for the U.S. military or Iraq's interim government, but seldom in groups.
In Fallujah, meanwhile, talks aimed at ending fighting in the militant-held city continued Thursday, even as witnesses said U.S. forces were trying to move into the city from the south.
Troops in tanks and armored vehicles clashed with insurgents at sunset, the witnesses said. Electricity to the city was cut off, and mosques were calling for volunteers to donate blood for the wounded.
U.S. warplanes, which have carried out frequent airstrikes on suspected insurgent safe houses in Fallujah for weeks, pounded the eastern side of the city Thursday night, witnesses said.
Also Thursday, the British government agreed to a U.S. request to shift more than 800 troops from southern Iraq to an area near Baghdad, freeing U.S. troops to move on insurgent-held areas, news services reported.
In the attack on the airport bus, the gunmen singled out a vehicle that was unmarked but easily recognized. The airport buses, which pick up workers at designated points throughout Baghdad, are a common sight in the morning on the road to the airport. And while the road is one of the most dangerous in Iraq, attacks there have most often hit U.S. military convoys and foreign contractors, not Iraqi civilians.
The gunmen struck as the bus left a residential area and headed for a stretch of open road leading to a checkpoint manned by Iraqi police and foreign security contractors, witnesses said. The bus driver, who was wounded in the head, tried to elude the gunmen as they riddled the vehicle with bullets, witnesses said. He stopped in front of the Adnan Khairallah technical high school, and some of his passengers fled into the school as the gunmen lobbed grenades at the disabled vehicle.
Hospital officials said 11 women were wounded, most of them seriously.
The director general of Iraqi Airways, which resumed flying last month after being grounded for 14 years by war and sanctions, said the national carrier and its employees had received numerous threats in recent weeks. "The attacks on the bus are part of the big war against Iraqi Airways and Iraqi Airways flights," said the director, Fadhel Abbas.
Iraqi Airways employees said that the bus attacked on Thursday had not been threatened specifically, but that leaflets dumped at a stop on another route had accused the airline's employees of being agents for the United States. The leaflets threatened them with beheading if they did not stop going to work.
The attack on the presidential staff members occurred in the working-class neighborhood of Iskan in northwest Baghdad as their car approached a well-known used-furniture auction house. The driver of the car, a man who was not immediately identified, had been threatened within the past week, according to a friend of the victims, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The talks on Fallujah involved 34 tribal and religious leaders who agreed on a list of demands for the Iraqi government, which has expressed eagerness to end the bloodshed there. The conditions include a halt to U.S. attacks on the city and acknowledgment by the military that women and children have been targeted.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.